Computer Crime Research Center

FBI Has Searchable Counter-Terror Data

(By Michael Kirkland)

Twenty-three million pages of documents have been scanned into the counter-terrorism database, Lowery said. The target is to have 40 million pages scanned into the system by mid-February.

The FBI Thursday showcased some of its newest information technology, including for the first time a counter-terrorism database that can be searched and analyzed.

The bureau was severely criticized in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks for failing to follow up on memos from the field that might have led investigators to the terrorists.

The memos were just several in a stream of tens of thousands of pieces of hard copy information flowing into the bureau before the attacks.

FBI officials believe the new computerized digital system will help analysts find and properly evaluate such information in the future, conceivably before terrorists can strike.

"Today we are a changed organization," FBI Director Robert Mueller told reporters at a headquarters news conference. The reporters were gathered in the executive briefing room of the FBI's mammoth Strategic Information and Operations Center, or SIOC. SIOC is a state-of-the-art communications center, with banks of computers and giant television screens, but the rest of the FBI's technology has been far behind.

The FBI has also been fighting suggestions from critics in Congress and elsewhere who say its mission is too focused on law enforcement. Some of those critics suggest that the tasks of counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence should be handed over to some new organization similar to Britain's MI-5.

Last year, the FBI reorganized its mission to make counter-terrorism its No. 1 priority. Thursday, Mueller said the new FBI "mantra" is, "Let no counter-terrorism lead go unanswered."

Its second priority has become protecting the United States from foreign intelligence, followed, in the No. 3 spot, by the battle against cyber-attacks. White-collar crime and significant violent crime are now No. 7 and 8 respectively on the bureau's priority list.

Mueller has centralized counter-terrorism operations in Washington and made the headquarters staff more responsible for those operations.

The director has also tried to enhance the bureau's "information exploitation" -- the analysis of documentation gathered in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the analysis of terrorist financial networks.

The bureau also has new "threat-based teams" that can respond to a specific situation, and "flying squads" that can easily go to the site of an attack or potential attack for forensic analysis.

Besides the addition of new analysts with a college of analytical studies at Quantico, Va., Mueller said, for the first time the FBI has "reports officers" similar to those employed in the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Report officers "strip out" sensitive material from intelligence, such as source names or methods, enabling information to be more widely dispersed.

The FBI has also more than doubled its specialists in languages that were formerly neglected, such as Arabic and Pashto.

But the biggest changes at the bureau may be occurring in the hardware and software a special agent uses for case files.

Up until the last year, agents used something called an "automatic case file" -- essentially a green screen with white letters. The system was slow and extremely limited. It could not contain audio, video or photographic images.

W. Wilson Lowery, the FBI's assistant director for administration, said the new "virtual case file" will make it much easier to input information, with modern analytical and search capabilities, sufficient band width to include audio, video and photographic images, and a complete set of documents in electronic form.

The FBI believes the "virtual case file" will revolutionize the way agents and analysts will do their jobs. The new system is much more like an Internet browser, with an easy point-and-click navigation.

Twenty-three million pages of documents have been scanned into the counter-terrorism database, Lowery said. The target is to have 40 million pages scanned into the system by mid-February.

Besides being searchable, the new system also has a "natural language query tool" to allow agents to pose questions or even load whole paragraphs into the search engine.

Once changes have been completed, Mueller told reporters, "We will be going from a paper to a digital organization."


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