Agencies find it's not getting the information, it's how you use it

For more than 50 years, since the twin triumphs of World War II and the Marshall Plan, nothing has summed up American power in the world so much as piles of stuff.

Be it weapons or widgets, rockets or refrigerators, the United States prevailed in war and peace because it could produce the most of the latest stuff. It was global domination through mass production.

But like so much else, this supremacy by manufacture didn't save us on September 11, 2001. Terrorists armed with nothing more sophisticated than box cutters hijacked the high-tech, high-flying products of U.S. industrial might--Boeing airliners--and flew them into the high-rise engineering wonder of the world--the World Trade Center. And in an ironic twist, when U.S. retaliation came, Special Forces soldiers had to ride, literally, to victory on the backs of borrowed horses and on the lethality of air strikes conducted by the oldest aircraft in the Pentagon's inventory--the 50-year-old B-52 bomber.

Certainly, both sides in this new kind of war used the heavy-metal gadgets that have long defined the cutting edge, most obviously long-range jet aircraft (whether owned or stolen) laden with explosive materials (whether smart bombs or jet fuel). But such tangible uses of technology were just the starting point, their availability almost taken for granted. The critical margin of victory for both sides was something altogether more ethereal: It was information.

It was the terrorists' understanding of air transportation, not their box cutters, that was their deadliest weapon on September 11. Thanks to 21st-century information technology, everything they needed was readily available: from manuals and simulators for their pilot training to flight schedules on the Web. They also could glean from news articles that standard procedure called for U.S. aircrews to collaborate with, not confront, hijackers in order to save passengers' lives.

Likewise, it was information that enabled America's lightning campaign in Afghanistan to work so well. Networking software allowed U.S. planners to coordinate nearly nonstop missions over Afghan skies using planes from Central Asian airstrips, aircraft carriers at sea, and bases in the United States. Digital communications gear let Special Forces on the ground transmit precise coordinates to the circling bombers. And an $18,000 upgrade kit let old-fashioned, free-falling bombs steer themselves to those coordinates by tapping into Global Positioning System satellites in space. New technology did make the crucial difference, but it was a new kind of new technology: small, quiet, and relatively cheap computers that told all the big, loud, and expensive machines exactly where to go for maximum effect. Without the information systems, the U.S. military would have just been blasting away at the landscape in a big, set-piece barrage right out of World War II.

A crucial caveat: It was having the right information, in the hands of just a few of the right people, that made the difference. It was not simply a matter of having a lot of data. On 9/11, Mohamed Atta and a band of 18 disciplined and trained hijackers, armed with some key but easily available information, wreaked great terror on America. Similarly, small Special Forces teams made up of just six soldiers each helped destroy an entire regime because of their precise knowledge of the enemy's location in Afghanistan, and because of their ability to transmit that knowledge to the bombers. Said Kenneth Watman, director of warfare analysis and research at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., "The real working end of this problem is the information end, not the shooting end."

And it's not the quantity of information that counts, as anyone who has used e-mail or searched the Web knows--it's how you use the masses of data to achieve your goal. "Being submerged in data that way is not very productive," said Watman. "You've got to have some sort of intelligent scheme for putting things together."

And that's where government tends to fall down. A bureaucracy built for the Industrial Age has real trouble adapting to an age of information. The private sector is still struggling to master the e-economy, but e-government lags far behind even these first steps. The White House's six-month-old Office of Homeland Security has only just hired a chief information officer to help manage the flood of e-mailed proposals from would-be contractors.

It is not that government never gets the information flowing smoothly. The FBI's National Crime Information Center can electronically alert almost every police chief and sheriff in the country, and some jurisdictions have computer terminals in every squad car. Other government and private groups--from disaster planners to hospitals to medical associations--have their own extensive networks, too. But each network is often too narrow to catch anything unusual: It simply moves information up and down within one organization, not side to side between them. Retired Navy Capt. John Gannon (now with the consulting firm Intellibridge) recalls that in his former job as director of the federal interagency National Intelligence Council, "I had responsibility for coordinating 11 agencies of the U.S. government. I could not communicate with those 11 agencies through one e-mail system."

The greatest tragedy to result from this information arteriosclerosis, of course, was 9/11. "It was the biggest single failure of our federal government," said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa. "You had agencies that were tracking individuals that other agencies weren't aware of, because there was no cross-pollination of data sets." The State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, because they did not get a CIA watch list until too late, let suspected terrorists into the country. A warrant was issued for the arrest of the apparent ringleader, Mohamed Atta, in April 2001 by Florida state police who had ticketed him for driving without a license. But the Florida police had no access to federal intelligence information.

So September 11 gave a new impetus to the long-running struggle to pool information across government. The INS is now trying to merge its database of offenders and fingerprints with the FBI's. A Customs Service pilot project in Arizona automatically checks vehicles crossing the border against both state and federal registers of licenses, and it even suggests which ones have suspicious crossing histories. A follow-on experiment will share the data with every government entity that works an Arizona border post: Arizona agencies, Customs, the Transportation Department, and even the Agriculture Department. Even more ambitious, the military's Special Operations Command has taken over an experimental Army project to "fuse" information from different Pentagon and civilian spy agencies' secret, and currently separate, data systems.

Again, the objective is not simply to accumulate mounds of information. The idea is to fuse together different kinds of data to get different perspectives on a problem from many angles. The simplest example is what the military calls "hyper-spectral" reconnaissance--looking at the same thing with different kinds of sensors. To an infrared camera, a heated metal plate looks like a running tank engine; to an optical camera, a wooden mock-up looks like a real tank. But if both sensors can be pointed at the same suspected target and compared, then the enemy is less likely to fool U.S. targeters.

The idea goes well beyond combining different types of cameras. Disaster planners now build electronic maps that, for example, can show how close fire stations are to chemical plants, or which hospitals can handle an overflow of casualties in a nearby mall's parking lot. Rep. Weldon proposes a "National Operations and Analysis Hub" that can collate transcripts of intercepted phone calls, spy camera imagery, agents' reports, and more into a single coherent picture of the world.

It sounds like an impossible technical challenge. But in fact, large private corporations have used the technology for years in data mining and marketing, Weldon said. But getting the government to make use of the technology, he said, "[has] been a battle with the agencies all along."

So what's the holdup? A big part of the problem is the resistance to change. Even the most seemingly mundane uses of information technology require some fundamental rethinking about how a bureaucracy does things. In February, for example, Navy Secretary Gordon England griped to his staff about the piles of paperwork on his desk and asked whether it could all be computerized. By April, a "paperless" system was in place: Preliminary estimates are that for each routine decision, processing time was cut by 78 percent, the number of staff to handle it by 71 percent, and the cost by 75 percent.

But those savings didn't result from simply speeding up the bureaucratic rounds. In a traditional office, a physical piece of paper goes from official to official to official, each one seeing the preceding handlers' comments and making his or her own before passing the memorandum along. And if one handler along the way really objected, he or she just sat on it. It was what engineers call a linear or "serial" process, where one broken link breaks the entire chain. With the new network, the originators of any proposal post their draft document on an intranet, so anyone can review and comment simultaneously without waiting. That's called a "parallel" process--except that in geometry, parallel lines never intersect, and yet in this network, everyone sees each other's comments and responds. It's all about interaction and intersection. The end result is faster, more flexible, more responsive to everyone's input--and distinctly unsettling to traditional bureaucracies.

Now, this is what can happen inside just one small military secretariat. It is fairly disruptive, but also more productive. Even more destabilizing, and also more valuable, are those networks that link different agencies. Knowledge is power, and is a jealously guarded bureaucratic commodity. But when a new network fuses information from multiple organizations, it creates new knowledge--new power--along the boundaries between them. In the language of the Information Age apostles, power shifts from the center to the edges.

Then those edges begin to blur. Eleven years ago, Desert Storm had an air campaign and then a ground campaign, clearly distinct and elaborately pre-planned; today in Afghanistan, aircraft and teams of ground troops work together from minute to minute on their own initiative. For the wars of tomorrow, the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command is experimenting with new task force headquarters that would deploy only a minimum of staff to a war zone. These headquarters would instead use networks to tap into centers of specialized expertise--military and civilian--back home, much as a small e-business start-up relies on contractors around the world. And a Chicago think tank, the Emergency Response & Research Institute, has proposed "virtual disaster networks" that can expand during a crisis to draw in whatever resources are needed to confront a given fire, flood, earthquake, or terrorist act. The local fire chief on the scene could link electronically to neighboring counties, National Guard units, state officials, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and appropriate experts anywhere on Earth--perhaps chemists for a Bhopal-style chemical leak or nerve gas attack, or physicians at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for an anthrax or smallpox outbreak.

What's the organizational diagram for this future? There isn't one. Instead, there's an ad hocracy that pulls together everything it needs to solve the current problem, then dissolves. "Maybe a better word than `organization' would be `collaborative community,'" said Dave Ozolek, an experimenter at Joint Forces Command.

In this dizzying future, "the technology [is] simply the enabler," Ozolek added. "It's not just buying a commercially available product and getting everybody up on the same screen: It also requires organizational change and cultural change."

No wonder few want to do it. Change is just too hard. At least troops fighting in Afghanistan have a strong incentive: If they can get the new way to work, it will save lives, maybe their own. Back home in Washington, the only certainty is that sticking to the old way will save your job.

So it should be no surprise that the history of government technology projects is littered with overruns, delays, and projects killed outright because different offices could not agree on what to do. And sometimes the inherent flaws in some bureaucracies are so deep that a given agency has to be brought up a level or two before extensive change can be contemplated. Consider the Immigration and Naturalization Service contractors who issued visas recently to two terrorists who had died six months earlier, on 9/11. The problem there was not the lack of sophisticated network technology, it was a failure by humans to connect the names in the newspaper to the names on the visa applications. As tricky as the technical questions can be, said a senior IT consultant to the federal government, "the big problem is the lack of management skill in government."

With the rise of modern information technology, the tools exist to change literally everything the government does, from counter-terrorism to office management. The question is what government will do with them.

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