Tuesday, March 28, 2006

FBI still doesn't have viable computer system

The New York Times
Keystone Komputers

It may sound incredible to anyone who's ever used the Internet, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation has struggled unsuccessfully for 10 years to come up with a workable computer system. The idea is to allow agents to quickly share discoveries and analyze information in ongoing investigations. The problem surfaced most grimly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when it emerged that the F.B.I.'s 1980's-era technology could not cross-reference words — like, say, "flight" and "schools" — for any agent who might have had advance suspicions about the suicide attackers' preparations.

After 9/11, the bureau started an urgent and very expensive program to fix the problem. But now we discover, equally grimly, that the search for high-tech sleuthing could take four more years and a half-billion dollars. The first effort, called the Virtual Case File, was a complete failure and was ignominiously closed at a cost of $170 million. The next effort was called Sentinel, but it is already stirring doubts from the Justice Department's inspector general. Among other worrisome signs is the bureau's borrowing of $29 million from its counterterrorism budget to bolster the push for computer overhaul. Any large enterprise can suffer technological shortcomings, but the bureau stands out for having a third of the project's 76 oversight slots vacant as of January, and a director on loan from the Central Intelligence Agency.

Most alarming of all, the inspector general concluded that even if the F.B.I. finally came up with a workable model, there would be no guarantee that it would solve the most crucial issue — agents' inability to share information with the myriad of other government departments involved in the detection of terrorism.

Surely the White House should be prodding the bureau to do better.