Critics: Management, not IT money, is FBI problem

Experts dispute John Ashcroft's claims that deficient IT funding hurt the FBI's intelligence gathering before Sept. 11, saying a disregard for tech was really at fault.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
7 min read
Experts are disputing Attorney General John Ashcroft's claims that a decade of deficient information technology funding hampered the FBI's intelligence gathering prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.


What's new:
Critics are taking aim at Attorney General John Ashcroft's testimony that a decade of deficient IT funding hampered the FBI's intelligence gathering prior to Sept. 11.

Bottom line:
Management, not money, is where the problem lies, they say--Congress would have been happy to hand more money to the bureau, were it not for past budget overruns, blown deadlines and a general lack of interest in tech.

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In a high-profile appearance Tuesday before the commission charged with investigating the deadly assaults, Ashcroft warned that through the 1990s, "the FBI's information infrastructure had been starved, and by Sept. 11, it collapsed from budgetary neglect."

The analysis drew a skeptical response from government watchdogs, who painted it as a typical bureaucratic reflex: Blame the budget rather than management. Ashcroft's comments come, as President George W. Bush is seeking an FBI funding increase of about $500 million, or 11.4 percent, for next year--part of a request for $22.1 billion in total Department of Justice funding.

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, noted that the crucial question is not a matter of how much agencies spend but how well they spend it. "I don't think I've seen a computer system yet in the federal government that has come in under budget and worked as advertised," Schatz said. "It's certainly rare."

Most criticisms of the FBI's performance have suggested that the bureau was unwilling or unable to share information with other government agencies and ignored a July 2001 memo from a Phoenix agent that warned that Osama bin Laden might be using flight schools to train terrorists--factors also cited by the attorney general.

But in his testimony, Ashcroft offered the inadequate-budget explanation. True or not, the claim could put new pressure on Congress to earmark more funds for the agency's neglected computer systems in today's charged political climate.

"The bureau essentially had 42 separate information systems, none of which were connected. Agents lacked even the most basic Internet technology...(These problems) hindered information sharing with the Justice Department, the intelligence community, and state and local law enforcement," Ashcroft told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

In the weeks after Sept. 11, Ashcroft repeatedly said the FBI's primitive computers must be upgraded to at least the level of those used by local police departments. But Ashcroft's testimony appears to be the first time the Bush administration has pointed to "budgetary neglect" of technology and a lack of cash from Congress as a reason the FBI failed to thwart the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

By the late 1990s, the FBI's computers were in undeniably poor shape. More than 13,000 of the FBI's desktop PCs were 4 to 8 years old, and the network linking individual offices was even older and operated at speeds roughly equivalent to those of a 56kbps modem. FBI agents often ended up resorting to faxes instead of e-mail.

Longtime observers of the FBI acknowledge that the bureau's hardware and networks were indeed shabby in 2001, but they argue that the real explanation is more complicated than Ashcroft indicated: The bureau's top management just didn't care about IT. For more than a decade, they say, the FBI's experiences with IT have been plagued by budget overruns, slipped deadlines and devastating critiques from outside auditors.

Former FBI director Louis Freeh "was not interested in technology" during his eight years at the helm, said Ronald Kessler, author of two books on the bureau. "The first thing he did when he became director was order his computer on his desk be taken out. He did not use e-mail." Freeh, a former New York City field agent who campaigned to limit secure encryption projects, resigned as director in June 2001.

Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute's project on criminal justice, said: "If there is a serious computer problem at the FBI, it's simply been because it's a low priority--not a lack of funding, as far as I can tell."

A massive FBI technology upgrade called Trilogy is designed to usher the bureau into the 21st century. The push, which has been in the planning stages since the mid-1990s, specifies that FBI employees will receive new hardware, better software and speedier communication links. A Web-based portion called the Virtual Case File is designed to provide access to more commercial and internal government databases, along with one easy-to-use search engine for all FBI files in the system.

Freeh, who also testified before the commission, said Tuesday that he was frustrated about not being able to persuade Congress to approve an IT modernization plan in 1998. "The FBI again submitted the (plan) to the Congress in March 1999. However, the plan was not accepted," Freeh said. "A revised plan was submitted in August 1999. Still, this plan was not approved. We continued to talk with the Congress, and we presented alternate funding scenarios but could not reach agreement."

But internal Justice Department reports show that Congress was worried about giving the FBI a blank check because of the bureau's "lack of credibility," after projects like the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System and the National Crime Information Center were completed millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

"The FBI's inability to effectively complete IT projects within budget and schedule reduced the FBI's credibility in the eyes of Congress," a December 2002 audit from the Justice Department's inspector general said. "The lack of credibility contributed to delays in the FBI receiving congressional funding to upgrade its IT infrastructure."

These problems were not new. As far back as 1990, the inspector general had found problems with the FBI's IT focus. A report released at the time said the FBI's 10-year "long range automation strategy" was severely behind schedule; that the FBI's top management was not paying sufficient attention; and that the FBI's mainframe systems were slow, unfriendly and used by virtually no agents in the field.

Eventually recognizing the FBI's growing credibility problem, Freeh hired a new chief information officer, Bob Dies, in July 2000. Dies had recently retired as the general manager of IBM's networking and personal computing division, and one of his first decisions was to change the name of the FBI Information Technology Upgrade Plan to the catchier "Trilogy" moniker.

Kessler, the author of the two FBI books, said that "very late in the game in the year he left, Freeh got an information guy who was supposed to upgrade things--but by then Congress didn't believe they knew what they were doing and was skeptical about giving them more money."

In November 2000, Congress wrote a check for $100.7 million to pay for the first year of the $379.8 million Trilogy project. in January 2002, responding to the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress handed over the remainder and an extra $78 million to speed things up.

Other portions of the FBI's budget also jumped after the attacks. The FBI's budget had gradually grown from $680.7 million in 1981 to $1.79 billion in 1991 to $3.4 billion in 2001. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, though, it leaped to $4.49 billion for the federal government's 2002 fiscal year.

Post 9/11
One big change at the FBI took place on Sept. 5, 2001, when Robert Mueller succeeded Freeh as the sixth director of the largest federal police agency. Through his work as the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco, Mueller had gained a reputation as being more tech-savvy. "Every FBI manager--indeed, every agent--needs to be computer-literate," Mueller said at his Senate confirmation hearing. "Not a computer programmer--but aware of what computers can and cannot do to assist them with their jobs."

But even Mueller and the influx of cash hasn't seemed to help the FBI fix its IT problems. A September 2003 report from Congress' auditing arm said "the FBI has yet to develop (a master IT architecture plan), and it does not have the requisite means in place to effectively develop, maintain and implement one. The state of the bureau's architecture efforts is attributable to the level of management priority and commitment that the bureau has assigned to this effort."

Trilogy's deadlines kept slipping, the General Accounting Office (GAO) noted, and the FBI did not meet its July 2002 deadline. The GAO gave the FBI a 1-out-of-5 rating, with 5 being highest. The FBI, the auditors concluded, had failed to appoint a chief information architect, create a master IT plan and establish an "architecture-steering committee"--all of which are required to achieve even a modest rating of 2 out of 5.

"I don't agree with the idea that the FBI or the Justice Department has been starved for funds," the Cato Institute's Lynch said. "I do not think that is so. When these statements are made, the average layperson can be forgiven for thinking that the budget numbers have been going down over the years. In fact, the budgets for the Justice Department and FBI have been going higher and higher." The FBI's focus in the last decade was drug crimes instead of terrorism, Lynch said.

Now, the FBI is racing to meet a revised April 30 deadline for upgrading its antique computers. The portion of Trilogy that dealt with upgrading networks was finally finished in March 2003, but the Virtual Case File software currently in development has been repeatedly delayed.

That has, once again, sparked criticism and increased scrutiny from Congress. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote a letter last month to Ashcroft and Mueller, complaining about "continued delays, despite the nearly $600 million in funding" and cost overruns.