The Stakes are High

By Larry Barrett Print this article Print

The FBI's efforts to overhaul the way it shares data on potential terrorists has fallen short.

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."

This article was originally published on 2003-09-10
Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.
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