Wednesday, December 13, 2006
In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.
— Laurence Johnston Peter, The Peter Principle
Iraq is not the only thing that’s broken that the administration can’t get fixed in a timely fashion. The FBI’s computers are another. But first some background.
There is nothing Mr. Bush fears more than terrorists. He has many weapons with which to fight those terrorists. If he suspects someone of being a terrorist he can call that person an enemy combatant and lock him or her up forever secure in the knowledge that that terrorist is one terrorist who will never again serve as a terrorist even if that terrorist wasn’t one when arrested. He can tap phones, intercept e mails, go through telephone records and do lots of other creepy things that wouldn’t be permitted in a free democratic society. The one thing he can’t do is use computers to find terrorists. The fault lies not, it turns out, with the computer but with the FBI.
In 2005 the FBI scrapped a $170 million computer overhaul that was designed to develop a case file system. According to a report in the New York Times at that time, the point of the new system called “Trilogy” had been to permit agents to obtain “instant access to FBI databases allowing speedier investigations and better integration of information . . ..” The overhaul was initiated in response to 9/11 and perceived shortcomings in how the FBI managed information. Discouraged by the difficulties reported in 2005, the FBI hired a computer expert and paid him $2 million to explain what was wrong with the program and to advise it on its salvageability. For $2 million it got the answer. Trilogy couldn’t be salvaged. The paperless case management system was scrapped and the FBI started over, developing a new system with the catchy name of “Sentinel”. Sentinel will cost about $425 million and will be completed in 2009, if adequate funding is provided. Thanks to Mr. Bush, the funding may not be provided. Here’s why.
In its most recently submitted budget request, the FBI said it needed $156.7 million for the new fiscal year to continue working on Sentinel. Mr. Bush declined to approve that amount. He said the FBI could make do with $100 million. The reason he said that is because the one thing George Bush thinks is more important than catching terrorists is being fiscally responsible even though under his watch the words “fiscal responsibility” have become nothing more than words that evoke a sense of nostalgia in those who hear them. (In 6 years Mr. Bush was able to convert a $230 billion surplus into a $250 billion deficit without even a hint of remorse.)According to a report by the inspector general who conducted an audit of the FBI and its finances the FBI faces “uncertainty” over how to raise the additional $56.7 million needed to continue developing Sentinel. The FBI let it be known that it disagreed with the inspector general. It said the president’s refusal to approve the full $156.7 million was no big deal. It said the balance of the needed funds had “long been identified from existing F.B.I. balances, and will not impact operational programs.” In addition to assuring all that it would have no trouble finding those funds it said, “characterizations to the contrary are misleading.”
(An obvious question is if the F.B.I. can easily find the money from sources other than the budget, why did it ask for it in the first place? As anxious as we all are to catch terrorists before being caught out by them, and being willing to sacrifice our civil liberties with scarcely a murmur in pursuit of that goal, we must nonetheless expect that one of the country’s most important sleuthing agencies be fiscally responsible and not ask for money it doesn’t need. It apparently did and there’s not much to be done about that except wonder why.)
Trying to put a friendly face on his otherwise critical report the inspector general said if the agency follows processes it has established to manage and control Sentinel we can have “reasonable assurance” that the project will be successful.
Some might wonder whether “reasonable assurance” is enough when one is in the business of funding a war against terrorists. Senator Patrick Leahy is one who wonders. Responding to the F.B.I.’s assurances that it can find money elsewhere if the White House persists in short changing it, he asked if the funds the F.B.I. plans to divert to continue working on Sentinel will force the agency to make cuts in its counterterrorism programs. He was quoted as saying: “mismanagement of this project seems to know no bounds.” He got that right. Those words could also apply to the way George Bush has managed the United States for the last 6 years.