The FBI’s Data Dreams

The FBI's hope to be the key practitioner of intelligence information might be just a data dream.

Who helped Abu Bakar Bashir with the Bali bombing?"

An FBI agent sits before a laptop computer and types that question into what looks like an ordinary Internet search engine. It's one that FBI agents and U.S. counterterrorism officials would very much like to have answered. Bashir, who has been charged with treason by the Indonesian government for his alleged role in a series of church bombings that killed 19 people in 2000, also is allegedly the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah, a supposed terrorist network allegedly linked to al Qaeda. The group is suspected of killing close to 200 people in the October bombing of a popular Bali nightspot frequented largely by foreign tourists. The FBI agent at the computer wonders whether, just maybe, the clues that could help prove or disprove all those allegations are sitting in the bureau's own databases.

It's not such a far-fetched idea. The FBI is arguably the best collector of information on the planet and has amassed hundreds of millions of documents related to its investigations. Since the Sept.11 attacks, bureau officials have tried to advance their global hunt for suspected terrorist masterminds like Bashir by attempting to wrap their brains around that mountain of data, which is larger than the collection of the Library of Congress.

Doing that never has been easy. Over the years, the FBI has built dozens of computer applications intended to logically organize and store that material, which makes up a case file, the essential building block of the FBI's information universe. For decades, the building blocks have been strewn about dozens of field offices, tucked away in filing cabinets and manila folders. The bureau never has been able to build a system that could put everything it knows in one place.

But this year, the FBI has taken some significant steps toward achieving its vision of information organization. In March, the bureau completed the long-awaited Trilogy project, which equipped all field offices with modern computers and access to e-mail and high-speed data networks. Those are things that-to the bewilderment of lawmakers and just about anyone who's become more familiar with the FBI's shortcomings since Sept. 11-agents never had.

Now that the FBI has a solid technological infrastructure, officials are loading their hundreds of millions of documents into computer databases and installing sophisticated applications that allow agents to search and analyze them-applications such as the search engine into which the agent typed his query about Bashir.

That particular software program, which is being tested by about 300 FBI agents and analysts, is manufactured by a com-pany called ClearForest, which started up five years ago in Israel. The device uses what the company's chief executive officer, Barak Pridor, calls "an intelligent hybrid technique" using "semantical and structural analysis" to classify a document and discover "connections and meanings" hidden inside it.

To the FBI agent, that simply means the computer program searches for the answers to his question in places he might never think to look. The ClearForest program parses his question and looks for mentions of Bashir's name or the words "Bali bombing" among the FBI's files and in news articles on the Web.

Then, the program generates a spider web-like diagram, with a name or a location at the end of each strand. This "highly visual interactive summary," as Pridor calls it, literally shows how Bashir is "connected" to other sources contained in the documents being searched. If the agent wishes, he can narrow his focus to a group of names, and then analyze how they're linked to each other in the documents, as well.

The program is one of five tools the FBI is testing. At the same time, the FBI is hard at work finally loading its documents into a new repository called Terrorism Intelligence and Data (TID). Also, the agency is finishing up a virtual case file system that will let agents enter their handwritten notes into a computerized form, which will go directly into TID.

That the FBI got to this point at all is a major feat. The bureau has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to renovate, replace and simply understand the thousands of technological systems it owns and operates. The man in charge of this venture, Wilson Lowery, an FBI executive assistant director, came to the bureau in June 2002 after a long career in the private sector, which included time as an executive at IBM. He says he had no idea how bad things really were at the FBI.

Now, there really does seem to be some light at the end of the long, dark tunnel the FBI has been moving through for years. Even after a stinging rebuke from the Justice Department's inspector general, who found that for all its efforts, the bureau still was wasting money on technology and didn't grasp the fundamentals of project management, the FBI has persevered. It now has set its sights on extending its young yet growing arsenal of databases and searching tools to encompass state and local governments and other federal agencies such as the CIA and the Defense, State and Homeland Security departments. The FBI would like very much for those agencies to contribute data to its burgeoning program, so the bureau can ultimately be the key practitioner of sophisticated terrorism analysis.

There's just one problem: It may never happen.

That assessment has very little to do with the FBI's technology managers, who, despite being blasted by the inspector general, really have improved since the days of former FBI Director Louis Freeh. During Freeh's tenure in the 1990s, the agency never had a central technology vision or the executive support to develop one. Current Director Robert Mueller is a technology believer. He has hired an array of private sector experts from companies that know better than any government agency how to harness the power of technology to transform an organization.

However, the FBI's plan faces three major obstacles. First, the bureau envisions information being fed into TID from a multitude of government organizations. But many of them are very reluctant to give up their data. Agencies such as the State Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Defense Department, as well as state and local law enforcement agencies-which are all on the proposed list of contributors-don't like giving the FBI information because they don't feel like they get anything in return. Frustration over this one-way street is most pronounced among state and local police. They've been complaining since the Sept. 11 attacks that they tell the FBI all they know, and then don't hear about a terrorist threat until the FBI announces to the news media that the danger has been averted.

The best evidence that the FBI faces an uphill climb getting agencies to cough up their information is that, so far, the data the bureau has loaded into TID isn't that highly coveted. Beyond its own records-which probably are most important to the bureau's counterterrorism efforts-the FBI has loaded news articles, names of suspected terrorists from watch lists and terrorism-related message traffic from a Defense Department system that was phased out years ago. The watch lists used to be hoarded by the various agencies that maintained their own versions, but are now supposed to be merged under the control of the Homeland Security Department.

The second stumbling block for the FBI's plans is the public. The bureau proposes storing telephone records and surveillance data in TID, as well as agency records. Led by privacy advocates and civil liberties groups, the chorus of opposition to increased government collection of private data is growing more vociferous. The FBI insists that all such data would be collected in accordance with guidelines set out by Attorney General John Ashcroft. But that's only likely to fuel objections by FBI opponents who say that monitoring of the public has exceeded acceptable limits since Sept. 11.

By Ashcroft's own accounting, the Justice Department last year submitted more than 1,000 requests to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret body that authorizes law enforcement surveillance, including wire taps, of suspected terrorists in the United States. The law establishing the court was prompted by revelations in the mid-1970s that the FBI had conducted secret intelligence operations against U.S. citizens, including political opponents of the Nixon administration.

It matters little whether privacy zealots' allegations that the FBI and the Justice Department are evolving into Big Brother are unfounded. Even the perception that this is happening could harpoon the FBI's plans. Bureau officials are extremely sensitive about any suggestion that they're stepping too far into this controversial territory. Asked at a recent news conference whether the FBI wanted to employ technology being researched by the Defense Department as part of its vilified Total Information Awareness program to scour private databases, three senior officials simultaneously piped up, "No!"

Ultimately, the FBI will face its stiffest opposition from the new counterterrorism bureaucracy. The new Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) ordered by the president is the government's hub for terrorism analysis. The center is overseen by CIA Director George Tenet, who selected as its manager a career CIA official. For months, intelligence experts presumed that Homeland Security would become the main analyzer of terrorism intelligence. The FBI had been making an effort to lead that task for years. Now, intelligence experts agree, the CIA is the counterterrorism chieftain. In a telling sign of the CIA's authority, Lowery says that any future expansions of the FBI's new TID system outside the bureau must be approved by Tenet himself.

If these three obstacles were taken out of the FBI's path, it's likely that the new technology leadership would succeed in implementing the TID vision. But the contrary forces are so strong, one is forced to ask whether the nation's largest law enforcement agency is really as influential in the war on terror as it thinks. The answer, like the one to the question about Abu Bakar Bashir and the Bali bombing, may be staring the FBI right in the face.

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