FBI takes terrorist investigation online

In the hours following attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Sept. 11, the FBI moved quickly to mount an investigation of unprecedented scale. One of its first steps was to generate tips from the public by establishing a toll-free, national telephone hot line. Then it looked for a Web site that could do the same thing. Dennis Lormel, section chief for the agency's financial crime division, told FBI leaders that such a site was already in place, and that it could serve as a clearinghouse for potential leads in the effort to track down those responsible for the attacks.

Within 90 minutes, the Internet Fraud Complaint Center (IFCC), established in May 2000 to handle complaints of online consumer swindles, was receiving large numbers of tips from people around the world and disseminating them throughout the agency and the intelligence community, said Bob Pocica, the FBI supervisory special agent who helps run IFCC. Attorney General John Ashcroft immediately announced that the site, www.ifccfbi.gov, was open for business. As of 3:30 Sept. 18, the Web site had received more than 54,000 online tips, making it the FBI's most valuable source of potential leads in the investigation, according to Ashcroft. By comparison, the FBI's telephone hotline provided nearly 9,000 tips and FBI field offices contributed more than 33,000 tips. "The Internet really blows all the other figures to pieces," said FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman. "This is the biggest investigation the FBI has ever been involved in-there's no doubt about it," Pocica said. He added that even the investigation of the Unabomber, which lasted 17 years and involved state and local law enforcement agencies across the country, doesn't equal the effort mounted by the FBI in the past seven days. Pocica believes IFCC has been invaluable in that effort. "Thank God we had it in place," he said. Pocica said tips are coming in from all over the world, from people who believe they know something relevant to the investigation or know someone who might be involved. At this point, he said, the FBI's mission is to gather evidence from which an indictment could be secured and a prosecution made. Pocica said the influx of international tips showcases the Internet's special ability to aid law enforcement. People living overseas are unlikely to pick up a phone and call the FBI's hotline, Pocica said. But anyone with an Internet connection can contribute potentially valuable information. The Web site hasn't changed the FBI's traditional case management system. Once a tip arrives, an FBI analyst reviews the message, and an agent supervisor assesses its value and decides whether to treat it as a lead and forward it to the appropriate law enforcement or intelligence personnel, said Pocica. In general, the more specific the information, the more likely it will be given high priority, he explained. Pocica could not reveal the nature of the information IFCC is handling, but said the site has received "substantial productive leads." Once the site was up and running at the IFCC offices, a second team of analysts was added to the operation at FBI headquarters in Washington, doubling the staff. Using a Web-based system allows anyone with Internet access to work on the operation, no matter where they are located, Pocica said. Pocica said this use of the IFCC heralds a new era in law enforcement and in the government's approach to conducting business online. "For e-government, for e-commerce, for e-everything, this is what we have to be doing," he said.

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