"Nobody who needed a document ever, ever sent it to the records division without keeping a copy of it or you only did it once," says a retired FBI official who handled a range of super- sensitive issues in the 1980s and 1990s. The records management system was so undependable that it became was routine for agents to maintain unauthorized "tickler" or "bootleg" copies of documents they needed for court proceeding or investigative follow up.
"If you don't know something's out there you can't do something to fix it," says the agent. "That's why so many agents kept their stuff locked up in their desk where it couldn't get screwed up." Name a sensitive, headline-making case and you can find a flap over lost-and-found documents. The humiliations range from the Congressional investigations into director J. Edgar Hoover's massive COINTELPRO domestic surveillance program to the overzealous terrorism investigation by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) to the Chinese espionage cases of the late 1990s.
"There was just embarrassment after embarrassment,' says one former top official. " The FBI would answer questions definitively and then a document would come out that was completely the opposite of what had been said. The senior management of the FBI hadn't been aware of the document and had made representations in good faith that they'd been adequately briefed, and they hadn't. It was scorched earth every time." As in the McVeigh case, the FBI's critics suspected the worst that FBI agents were conspiring to cover up some important truth. But in nearly all those cases, no deliberate deception was ever found. "We were just getting pummeled for the stupidity of a crummy record system," says a former official.
Why was the computer system so bad? The bureau’s techno-phobia was one problem, as was an almost religious adherence to tradition. Of course, no one was helped by perennially bad decision-making by bureaucrats who are, for the most part, clueless about the leaps being made in information technology. "When the Bureau began its "computerization" in the mid-1980s, we were operating with very limited funding and the belief that we could do everything we needed to do with in-house talent," John Sennett, head of the FBI Agents Association, wrote in a recent e-mail gently admonishing his members.
"We did not understand how pervasive the demands would be on us in the 1990s and beyond. Many of us continued to regard computers as fancy typewriters. If more of us had been clamoring for state-of-the-art information technology instead of complaining about being forced to change, we might have made more progress by this time. So here we are in 2001, still with a rickety and frustrating information management system anything but the envy of outsiders. We have one foot firmly planted in the paper world almost as if nothing has changed. The other foot is tentatively planted in the digital age with the too frequent result that the whereabouts, dissemination or proper indexing of communications can not be taken for granted."
"I expected to be depressed, and it was a little worse than I thought," says Bob Dies, 52, a retired IBM executive brought on board by FBI director Louis Freeh about a year and a half ago. "What these agents get done in spite of the fact they have very little support is just amazing."
Dies says most of the FBI's networks are twelve years old and do not support Internet browsers or even Microsoft Office applications. Two-thirds of the desktop computers in the FBI are up to eight years old, with green screens and ancient software. There are virtually no high speed Internet access lines: Some field offices, Dies says, are wired to the outside world with antique modems hooked to one or two conventional telephone lines. To cap it off, agents are still mailing paper 302s, or reports of interviews, to other field offices.
One problem highlighted by the McVeigh case document flap, Dies says, is that even when a field office correctly dispatched documents to the command center in Oklahoma City, there was no system for acknowledging their receipt and logging them in, which meant that the sending office never knew whether the documents got to the McVeigh case file or not.
Last fall, Dies, backed by Freeh, convinced the Congressional appropriators to give the FBI $300 million over three years to upgrade the bureau systems. "I've spent the last six months going through the federal procurement system," he says. "It seems like a long time to me. But the procurement people say it's on a very fast path."
Due to conflict of interest rules, Dies, who holds a chunk of IBM stock, can't hire IBM's own stable of experts. "If I could, I could get this fixed a whole lot faster," he says. "But we have capable partners (contractors). And I will get this fixed in spite of the bureaucracy."