Wednesday, June 11, 2008

FBI = Famously Backward at Information-handling

This week the FBI's Inspector General released a redacted 120-page audit report on the Bureau's notorious inability to do timely national security name checks in support of immigration and naturalization activities. There are a variety of reasons for the Bureau's chronic large backlog on name checks, including "outdated and inefficient technology, personnel who have limited training, overburdened supervisors and inadequate quality assurance measures." But the most interesting reason is that the FBI is still manually locating and retrieving paper records in many cases.

It seems that any immigration matter or other U.S. government transaction that requires a national security name check may have to wait while an FBI clerk or analyst requests paper files from as many as 265 separate FBI record locations. I hope that none of my fellow civil servants are in a big hurry to issue Green Cards to immigrants, because the FBI is going to take a while to finish those name checks.

The Washington Times had the only national news story about this report yesterday (Security Checks Called Deficient) but the Washington Post caught up today (Audit Faults Delays in Immigrant Name Checks ). You can also learn quite a bit about the FBI's National Name Check Program (NNCP) from its helpful website, which describes the name check process step-by-step and also has this answer to a Frequently Asked Question:

The average time required to retrieve and review an FBI record for possible information related to a name check request is case specific—it depends on the number of files an analyst must obtain (which is dictated by the number of "hits" on a name), the location and availability of those files, and the amount of information contained in a file. If a file is stored locally, an analyst will be able to obtain the file within a matter of days. If a file is located in a field office or other FBI location, the applicable information must be requested from that location. There are over 265 different FBI locations that could house information pertinent to a name check request. If a file is electronically available, an analyst will have immediate access to that file. Additionally, once an analyst receives the file, or the pertinent information contained in a file, the analyst must review it for possible information related to the name check request.

Because not all files needed for name checks are electronically available, those analysts spend lots of their time chasing down widely dispersed paper files. That situation is unchanged from what the FBI reported to Congress back in 2003 (The FBI's VISA Name Check Process) when Robert J. Garrity, Jr., Acting Assistant Director of the FBI Records Management Division, testified before the House Committee on Government Reform:

I have touched upon our IT systems shortcomings, but now I want to discuss the primary factor in any delay in the FBI responding to a visa name check. When the NNCP systems produces a "Hit" or an "Ident" that requires further review, the analyst must consult the actual file. If he or she is lucky, the file has been uploaded into our electronic recordkeeping system, ACS, and can be instantly accessed from her workstation computer. This system only came on-line in October 1995, so often the full text of the information has not been uploaded [TSB note: the texts had "often" not been uploaded eight years after the new system came on line? That's too slow even for government work.] and the analyst must resort to the paper record ..... FBI files are currently stored at one of approximately 265 locations, including the FBI's Headquarters facility, several warehouses around the Washington Metropolitan area, in records centers either operated by the NARA or commercial concerns, four large Information Technology Center facilities on the east and west coast, at each of the 56 field offices, many of the larger of our 400 resident agencies, and at legal attaché offices worldwide. This equates to approximately 1.8 million cubic feet of decentralized records storage, which provides some unique challenges to our efforts to be optimally effective and efficient.

One possible solution to these problems the FBI is exploring would be a central records repository where all of our closed paper files could be located, and our active files stored electronically. Our frequently requested closed files could be scanned and uploaded into our electronic record-keeping system, so that Agents and analysts world wide would have instant, electronic access to the information they need to do their jobs.

Fast-forward five years and the FBI still hasn't scanned and uploaded those paper records or even collected them all in one place. What's the problem? They've had plenty of time and money. As Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said to FBI Director Mueller last April during yet another hearing about the FBI's failure to digitize paper records (FBI Grilled Again Over Computer Upgrade Woes), if a company like Google can digitize university library volumes in a matter of months, the FBI has no excuse for its inaction.

It is increasingly apparent that the FBI simply doesn't want to convert its legacy paper records to electronic format. Why in the world not? Maybe because the institutional culture of the Bureau is so obsessively entrenched in its pre-World War II 'G-man' mode that it refuses to modernize. But I suspect the main reason is an equally entrenched reluctance to create any form of record that can't be absolutely controlled, something that arises out of legitimate concerns about legal discovery and the creation of so-called "Brady material" that must be disclosed to defense lawyers. Paper files in local field offices are safely under the FBI's control in a way that centralized electronic records cannot be.

A story in a technology journal about the FBI's enormous problems with computerization gives some insight into this reluctance to create electronic records:

To understand why the [Virtual Case Management system] was so important, you've got to understand the FBI. And to understand the FBI, you've got to understand its organization and its agents. When asked during an interview at FBI headquarters if agents felt uncomfortable about exchanging a paper-based system for an electronic one, the FBI's current CIO, Zalmai Azmi, didn't think agents would find it hard to get into the habit of processing forms electronically. But introducing an electronic record-keeping system does raise legal policy questions in their minds. "What is a record and what is available under discovery? In a paper world, you do your job, you do your notes, and if you don't like it, it goes somewhere," Azmi said. "In an electronic world, nothing really is destroyed; it's always somewhere."

Indeed, electronic records are "always somewhere." And that's a big problem for the FBI because, sooner or later, some electronic record will escape the FBI's control. Which would be a bad thing because, well, just because the FBI would lose control.

So all you people who want to process visas and Green Cards will just have to sit on your hands while the FBI continues to conduct name checks by manually sorting through 1.8 million cubic feet of decentralized paper records.

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