FBI: Under the Gun over Security

 
 
By Larry Barrett  |  Posted 2003-09-10 Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The FBI's efforts to overhaul the way it shares data on potential terrorists have fallen short. Will the G-Men ever get it right?

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 FBIs 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. "Its an art. And you cant just throw technology at an art and hope it will solve the problem. It doesnt work that way."

Johns 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 Departments inspector general was more blunt, telling Congress that the FBIs 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 Washingtons 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. "Lets just say its less than five networks but more than two."

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

Next page: Revamping the FBIs IT infrastructure.


 
 
 
 
Senior Writer
larry_barrett@ziffdavisenterprise.com
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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