The FBI is testing a limited version of an electronic counterterrorism system that officials hope will revolutionize the way agents collect and understand information, FBI officials said Thursday.
As part of an ongoing technology upgrade, the FBI is building a massive database to store case information, leads, intelligence and even newspaper and magazine articles related to terrorism. Articles, the names of suspected terrorists on watch lists and terrorism-related message traffic from the Defense Department and the CIA have been placed into the database, which is being tested by some agents, according to Wilson Lowery, the FBI executive assistant director leading the project. Visa information from the State Department will be added to the database within 60 days, he said.
Lowery and a number of bureau officials briefed reporters on the new database, known as TID, or Terrorism Intelligence and Data. If designed as envisioned, it would house information from a vast array of sources and would be used in some capacity by the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, the government's new terrorism intelligence hub overseen by the CIA.
The database also would store information from state and local law enforcement agencies, records of telephone calls and terrorism-related information from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Defense agencies. It would also contain data from the 66 joint terrorism task forces at FBI field offices, as well as from the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, an interagency group formed by Attorney General John Ashcroft in October 2001 to keep known terrorists and suspects out of the United States and to track them if they do enter the country.
Lowery acknowledged the security and privacy concerns that would likely be raised by placing so much sensitive information in one place. He said that security of the database is a top priority, and that a CIA official detailed to the FBI is working on the system's design and can "veto" elements that don't meet strict standards. Also, Lowery and other officials said information would be collected according to guidelines established by the attorney general.
Those assurances may not appease civil liberties groups and privacy advocates, which have assailed Ashcroft for loosening long-standing restrictions on FBI agents' ability to collect information on people suspected of involvement in terrorism.
Ashcroft told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday that in 2002, the Justice Department made more than 1,000 applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes law enforcement surveillance, including wire taps, of suspected terrorists in the United States. Also, Ashcroft requested 170 "emergency" surveillance requests, three times the total number obtained in the 23 years prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. The emergency requests allow collection of information for 72 hours prior to court review, and are personally authorized by the attorney general.
Lowery said that the director of Central Intelligence would have to authorize any extension of the new terrorism system to other agencies, such as the Homeland Security Department.
Lowery and FBI officials showcased a number of technological "tools" used with the database that agents are testing now. One resembled an Internet search engine, and would allow agents to conduct key word searches of the database.
Another tool lets agents enter questions to find relevant documents. To demonstrate the system, one official entered the phrase "Who helped Abu Bakur Bashir with the Bali bombing?" The tool generated a list of news articles mentioning Bashir, who is the alleged leader of Jemaah Islamiah, the group suspected of bombing a popular tourist spot in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002. The official said the version of the tool FBI agents would use would return mostly official documents, not news reports.
Lowery also said that the much anticipated Virtual Case File would begin operating in December. The system is an online case management system that would house the paper forms agents use now when conducting all manner of investigations. The system will absorb five other case management systems that are antiquated and disconnected.