FBI: Under the Gun

By Larry Barrett  |  Posted 2003-09-10

Darwin John had established himself as a bit of a miracle worker before being asked to lead an information- systems renaissance at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

But John, former director of information and communications systems for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, needed divine intervention to help him navigate the politics, pressure and organizational malaise that he found upon his arrival in Washington. In May, John resigned as the FBI's chief information officer after less than a year on the job.

"One of the biggest lessons I learned was that finding terrorists and preventing attacks is not a science," John says. "It's an art. And you can't just throw technology at an art and hope it will solve the problem. It doesn't work that way."

John's primary task was to oversee a technology infrastructure overhaul that would enable agents to swap data and intelligence within the bureau and with other law enforcement agencies to help prevent future terrorist attacks. The project, dubbed Trilogy, began in 2001 with a budget of $380 million and was supposed to be finished by the end of 2004.

The project is now expected to cost between $450 million and $500 million to complete and is running more than six months behind schedule, according to analysts familiar with the Trilogy initiative.

John says the FBI has made some important strides, but admits the agency is only slightly better prepared to gather and share information on terrorists and possible terrorist activity than it was on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The Justice Department's inspector general was more blunt, telling Congress that the FBI's technology implementation was a case of "mismanagement."

The slow start comes despite the fact that no law enforcement agency took as much heat in the wake of the Sept. 11 events. The FBI had learned in late August 2001 that Nawaf Alhazmi, a Saudi Arabian citizen with direct ties to Osama bin Laden, was somewhere in the United States. Worse, FBI assistant directors assigned the case a low priority. By the time the FBI did finally ask agents to track down Alhazmi and other individuals with terrorist ties, it was too late.

Alhazmi was one of five terrorists who boarded American Airlines Flight 77 at Washington's Dulles International Airport the very morning FBI headquarters sent out a request to Los Angeles special agents to find and detain Alhazmi. The flight, destined for Los Angeles, ultimately crashed into the Pentagon, killing all 59 passengers and crew as well as 125 service members and civilians in the Pentagon building.

This type of intelligence failure compelled President Bush to create the Department of Homeland Security and revamp the way federal security organizations communicate among themselves and with international, state and local agencies.

Could the FBI better track someone like Alhazmi now? "Today, as we speak, the FBI still is using multiple networks for its day-to-day operations," John says. "Let's just say it's less than five networks but more than two."

W. Wilson Lowery, the FBI's acting chief information officer, was unavailable to comment about FBI operations or the current status of the Trilogy project.

When John arrived on the scene in July 2002, he inherited an information technology infrastructure that was "at least five or six years" behind most of corporate America. Worse, previous administrations had allowed various regions to establish and install their own information systems. Revamping the FBI's information systems was a vast change from John's previous position, which required him to transform the Mormon Church into a global organization by building a comprehensive Web portal, installing videoconferencing and developing applications used to manage a database covering centuries of genealogical data.

Many FBI special agents were still using outdated computers running on Intel 386 and 486 processors loaded with dozens of disparate software applications—some of which were 10 to 15 years old. There was virtually no way for agents to simultaneously access the dozens of databases they used every day to track criminals. The FBI had to start from scratch if it were to effectively collect, analyze and share the information needed to catch would-be terrorists.

"It was a crisis situation," John says. "We had agents in some field offices who were using high-speed laptops with broadband Internet access and others across town who were still crawling along on 386s with dial-up access and, sometimes, no access to the Internet. To even begin starting to attack terrorism, we needed the basic blocking and tackling equipment."

The massive infrastructure overhaul, Trilogy, included the purchase of 21,000 Dell desktop computers running the Windows XP operating system. More than 3,000 printers and 1,500 scanners were acquired so field agents could exchange photographs, fingerprints and other visual data that were usually faxed, mailed or simply not accessed by agents working in other cities.

The project, which completed its first phase in March, will ultimately connect all 622 FBI field offices to each other via Ethernet networks. That could take another year, insiders say.

At the FBI, basic communication tools were neglected: the agency didn't have a unified e-mail system until Trilogy began, John says. Even after the project is completed, agents still won't have a secure e-mail system.

Analysts question the move. "That would be a first and very simple step for the FBI and other agencies to take," says Gartner Inc. analyst John Pescatore. "Just give these guys the ability to securely share information and I bet everyone will be surprised to see just how much cooperation can take place in very small but meaningful ways."

In December, the Justice Department's inspector general issued a scathing review of the Trilogy implementation, saying that "mismanagement of I.T. projects" had resulted in the "waste of millions of dollars on projects and missed deadlines for implementing crucial upgrades" to the FBI's information systems.

The inspector general also panned Trilogy's progress. "We found that the lack of I.T. investment-management processes contributed to missed milestones and led to uncertainties about cost, schedule and technical goals."

The inspector general derided the FBI, for instance, for dropping a plan to put low-cost terminals in FBI offices. By relying on central servers to actually compute results, the FBI would have saved on hardware and software updating costs, the inspector said. The FBI argues such an approach can't meet the technical requirements of the bureau primarily because of security concerns.

Lowery has told the General Accounting Office that the FBI is in the process of addressing the 30 different recommendations made by the inspector general's report to improve the way the bureau plans, budgets and executes future information systems implementations. Among other things, the inspector general asked the FBI to create a financial system to manage and allocate information technology resources for counterterrorism activities, and to assign a single individual who would be accountable for managing the assessment of projects to completion.

Indeed, the stakes are high for these projects because agents increasingly need to share information. Current and former FBI special agents say the antiquated equipment and patchwork communications network have made it all but impossible to access and share information while working cases.

"The system definitely could have been faster and more user-friendly," says James Williams, a former special agent who now serves as director of security solutions at Solutionary Inc. in Omaha, Neb. He says it could take several days to get information from local law enforcement agencies on a particular case. "If you wanted information from local authorities about a case, it was really bad. As an agent, you don't care about the back end of the system. You just need information presented clearly and quickly."

The inspector general criticized the FBI for shelving plans to put its Automated Case System (ACS)—a pre-9/11 database of information about ongoing investigations—online, a move that would have helped agents share information. According to the inspector general's report, the FBI did such a poor job of documenting its databases that it is just now going through the painstaking process of cataloging the information on each database, leading to more delays for the Trilogy project.

FBI officials say moving its old system online was too costly, akin to "putting lipstick on a pig." The agency now plans to replace the ACS with the Virtual Case File (VCF), a database scheduled to be completed by December for about $40 million.

The Virtual Case File will give field agents an Internet-based system that will allow them to search, analyze and compile case information. Agents in different locations will have the flexibility to add information at any time—assuming they have proper security clearance—and colleagues will then be able to see any updated or related information in real time.

When it's completed, the FBI says Virtual Case File will replace as many as 180 databases that agents are currently using in the field. To complete the unified database, the FBI has been scanning more than 30 million paper documents into the system on everything from al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein to suspected terrorist organizations and members dating back to the 1960s.

Instead of faxing or even mailing pertinent information about a suspected terrorist from one city to another, agents will have electronic access to the files. Those files could be shared by the FBI, CIA, the National Security Agency and local police departments.

Like other FBI-led information systems projects, it's unclear if the VCF will be ready by the December deadline. John, who continues to work for the FBI one week a month as a consultant, says the project is still on schedule.

Pescatore, the Gartner analyst, isn't so sure. "It's an example of a good idea that's turned into a mega-project … and so far, no one has really heard much about it. I'd assume if things were on schedule, they'd be blabbing about it.''

Meanwhile, intelligence breakdowns continue to occur.

In November, visas were issued to 105 foreigners who were able to enter the United States even though they were prominently listed on various law enforcement agencies' lists of suspected terrorists. The visas were immediately revoked.

State Department applications for visas to enter the U.S. from certain countries were supposed to be checked against terrorist lists in CIA and FBI databases. But the General Accounting Office found the name-check system failed as responsibility for the checks shifted among the Justice Department, the State Department, the FBI, the CIA and the multi-agency Terrorist Tracking Task Force.

Finally, the State Department was told by the FBI to refuse visa applications from 200 applicants but those orders came after the 30-day hold on the applications had expired, meaning that those individuals were already issued visas.

Critics say this and other glitches are unfortunate examples of how the FBI and other agencies have still failed, thus far, to reach any consensus on the best way to use technology to share information among themselves.

"Everyone is looking for a different set of applications and security standards," John says. "And everyone in this town is so concerned about securing budget dollars, it's very difficult for one agency to back down and let another take the lead. It's a frustrating part of the job that I didn't fully appreciate until I was immersed in it."

FBI Base Case

Headquarters: J. Edgar Hoover Building, 935 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20535

Phone: (202) 324-3000

Business: As the principal investigative arm of the Department of Justice, the FBI's more than 11,000 special agents and 16,000 support personnel investigate crimes as well as provide other law enforcement agencies with cooperative services such as fingerprint identification, laboratory examinations and police training.

Acting Chief Information Officer: W. Wilson Lowery

Financials: Annual budget in excess of $4.3 billion in fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

Challenge: Improve ability to collect, analyze and share data with other law enforcement agencies in order to preclude terrorist attacks.

Baseline Goals:

  • Update information systems by 2004 to enable sharing of intelligence with other law enforcement and security agencies.

  • Institute a method of tracking cases using Internet communications by December 2003, with budget of $40 million.

  • Increase hiring of technology specialists, to improve tracking of terrorist activity and suspects. Sixty-six such agents hired in fiscal 2002 and 114 in fiscal 2003.