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War on Terrorism Highlights FBI's Computer Woes

Security: Arrogance, misplaced priorities and a culture that 'real men don't type' kept the bureau in the slow lane. Recovery won't come quickly.

July 28, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU and CHARLES PILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In the frantic days after the terrorists struck, FBI agents scrambled to box up investigative files at their New York office a few blocks from the World Trade Center and haul them to safety. In the FBI's paper-driven culture, many of the documents had never even been downloaded into the bureau's aging computer system.

In Tampa, Fla., meanwhile, agents were scurrying to send photos of the 19 hijackers by overnight mail to 56 FBI offices around the country so agents could chase down possible conspirators. Frustrated agents had been unable to e-mail the photos because the FBI's computer system wasn't designed to handle such a basic task.

The Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath have exposed the FBI's computers as a national laughingstock, a system so antiquated and inefficient that U.S. senators quip that their kids get more bang for their byte than the nation's vaunted G-men.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has laid out an ambitious three-year plan for overhauling the bureau's beleaguered system. But the severity of the problem, and its threat to national security, have long been known to top FBI officials.

Indeed, newly disclosed records and interviews show that years of warnings at the highest levels of the FBI often have gone unheeded and that the bureau allegedly diverted tens of millions of dollars from computer upgrades to manpower needs that it deemed more important.

Former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno became so frustrated by the FBI's inertia that she wrote then-Director Louis J. Freeh a highly unusual and strongly worded series of internal memos about the problem. In a May 2000 memo obtained by The Times, titled "Threats to U.S. National Security Interests," Reno told Freeh that it was "imperative that the FBI immediately develop the capacity" to search its files, analyze security threats and be able to share information with other intelligence agencies.

"I think our national security requires that we get started immediately on this effort," Reno told Freeh in a memo foreshadowing the intelligence failures that would be revealed 16 months later by the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Yet not much has changed, and the threat to national security looms even greater. How the FBI reached such a state of technological lethargy is a story of institutional arrogance, misguided priorities, missed warning signs, overmatched technical advisors and a soured relationship with increasingly distrustful benefactors in Congress.

Dating back nearly a decade, officials warned in private communication and in public reports that the bureau was severely hampered by agents' inability to do such basic tasks as thoroughly searching case records and receiving e-mail. The shortcomings have played a part in virtually every high-profile misstep by the FBI in recent years, including missing Oklahoma City bombing documents, the Robert Philip Hanssen spy scandal and the Wen Ho Lee espionage investigation.

Investigations are still largely paper-driven, and many agents use dinosaur-era computers or even write reports longhand in this era of high-speed Pentium processors. The FBI has 42 databases that often run on incompatible software and hardware. Simple searches--allowing an agent in Minneapolis, for instance, to see whether the words "flight training school" show up in case files--are unwieldy, if not impossible.

Experts inside and outside of the FBI say myriad financial, political, technological and cultural factors explain the logjam, among them:

* The FBI, unable to pay the top salaries the private sector doled out through the 1990s, lacked the in-house technical expertise to manage complex upgrades. Until the last few years, officials often believed, mistakenly, that their people could do the job themselves without the help of outside experts.

* A distrustful Congress, grown weary of huge cost overruns after doling out $1.7 billion on FBI computer projects since 1993, has kept the bureau on a tighter financial leash, refusing to fund new projects until higher standards were met.

* And, perhaps most critical, the bureau experienced cultural resistance to letting machines take the place of solid, old-fashioned police work, an attitude shared by many top officials and street agents alike.

As one veteran agent said, the FBI has been dominated by an old-school attitude that "real men don't type. The only thing a real agent needs is a notebook, a pen and gun, and with those three things you can conquer the world. That was the mind-set for a long time, and the computer revolution just passed us by because of it."

Sept. 11 Attacks Provided a 'Sense of Urgency'

The FBI itself realized as early as 1996 that a newly installed case-file system had glaring holes. It sent in a special "red team" of experts and agents to analyze the problems, according to law enforcement sources familiar with the review. Six years later, the case system, with many of the same holes, has not yet been replaced.

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