Intelligence: June 1, 2002

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The FBI has long been the butt of jokes among government for the inability of the Bureau to keep up with computer technology. Key people in the FBI never gave computer technology the attention it needed. This proved embarrassing when the FBI was called upon to deal with Internet vulnerabilities in the 1990s. The Bureau was saved from disaster by agents who had educated themselves about Internet technology, using up to date equipment and software they bought with their own funds. But these agents still had to put up with ancient (by PC standards) equipment at work. Worse yet, the FBI had not availed itself of off the shelf database technology to make the most of all the information it collected. Naturally, the FBI did not point out that some of the criminal organizations it busted were using more advanced computer systems than the FBI. But it will take more than new hardware and software to bring the FBI up to date. The Bureau lacks enough people who know how to handle this stuff. These computer skills are particularly lacking at the senior management level. The low level of computer expertise has led to clues being missed and, in a recently revealed incident, valuable emails from al Qaeda members being captured, and then inadvertently destroyed. The FBI has two major obstacles in making effective changes here. First, more computer savvy people have to be promoted to management positions so that the needed changes can be made. This means promoting younger agents over more senior ones. While the Bureau promotes on "merit," seniority still plays a big role in who gets advanced. A second problem is that FBI salary levels are too low to attract the kind of computer professionals needed. This is a problem with all government agencies. The usual solution is to hire contractors for a lot of this work. But you still need computer literate people on the FBI end to make sure the job gets done and done right. We don't know yet if the FBI can do either.

 


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