FBI manager keeps agency tech upgrade on track

In the late 1980s, the Internal Revenue Service began a technology modernization program to replace its decades-old computing system. The effort was a disaster. The agency spent $4 billion and ended up with an unworkable computer system that had to be scrapped and replaced in the late 1990s. W. Wilson Lowery, the FBI's executive assistant director for administration, has a plan for ensuring that his agency doesn't repeat the IRS's mistakes.

Lowery spent 30 years at IBM in various management positions before FBI Director Robert Mueller wooed him to the FBI in June 2002 to oversee the bureau's technology overhaul. So far, Lowery is on track with the upgrade. By the end of March, the agency had succeeded in creating one network by linking 21,025 of its desktop computers spread across 622 locations. The success marked the first time FBI agents in the field could connect by computer with the home office in Washington.

Lowery is also making sure that the FBI's 11,500 agents have access to laptop computers and portable computing devices to speed up investigations. By year's end, all agents and analysts will have access to a new computer tool called the "virtual case file," which is expected to enhance the FBI's ability to analyze the enormous amount of data it receives daily. Lowery, whose style is both straight-talking and personable, sat down with National Journal on June 13 to discuss the re-engineering effort. The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

NJ: What makes you think you will be able to succeed in re-engineering the FBI?

Lowery: There are three ingredients for re-engineering efforts to succeed. No. 1-and it will sound trite, but it's absolutely true-the leader of the organization has got to be fully committed to it. To say that Bob Mueller is committed to this is an understatement. He demands it, because he understands the implication of not changing.

No. 2 is that you have to put someone in charge who understands how to do it and is going to basically manage the day-to-day operation; that is me. The third thing is that you have to convince the organization that they must put some of their better people on these particular projects, because these projects are very important to our future. So if you get those three things, it's not that hard.

NJ: How did it happen that FBI agents went for so long without laptops and that its field offices weren't connected to one network?

Lowery: I don't know that answer. I'm playing the hand that we've been dealt. I don't want to go throwing rocks at any individuals, but I can tell you [technology] was not emphasized, and people here will tell you that. Even today, we'll get from people that have been here a while, "Am I going to have to learn how to type?" And the answer is that absolutely you are. You are going to have to understand how to use computer technology.

NJ: How do you know what you are doing is succeeding?

Lowery: You have to have a mechanism to know what you are doing is actually working. That says measurements. [With] some of our projects, we have good measurements, and I feel that we are about where we need to be.

With others, however, we are still developing and testing what those measurements should be. One of the things that we want to do is [determine] how many terrorist events we have prevented. That gets you into an area where you cannot unequivocally say this is what we prevented, because it didn't happen in the first place.

NJ: Why did you decide to come to the FBI?

Lowery: Most people assume that I have a political connection. I barely contribute and don't anymore. The story is that I retired from IBM in September 1998. I had three objectives. You know how we type A's are; you have to have objectives, right? My wife and I were going to move to South Carolina and build our dream home, and I was going to get my golf handicap down, and we were going to spend time together. It was a great three and a half years until September 11.

My reaction was no different than others'. I sat there with tears running down my face and said I should do something to help. So I called a man I had worked with at IBM who was at the FBI. He said, "Why don't you come up and meet Mueller?" And I said, "That would be a thrill." I met with him and asked him a straightforward question: "Are you serious about [changing the FBI]?" And he said, "If we don't change the way this organization operates and re-engineer it from top to bottom, there will be no FBI as we know it today."

And he said, "Will you come help me?" I couldn't say no. It's been the best year of my life.