Federal Bureau of Luddites

Most of you have probably heard about the FBI’s technology problems: The field offices that still aren’t connected to the ‘Net. The 8,000 employees who don’t have fbi.gov e-mail addresses. The case management database that’s straight out of the leisure suit era.
ace_g_man_stories_canada_194305.jpgBut what’s not as widely known is why the bureau is so behind the times. The big culprit is FBI culture, it turns out. Until very recently, being computer-savvy hasn’t been considered much of an asset in the FBI, and clues were something you kept to yourself.
My story in Slate explains. Check it out — it’s my first one for ’em.
UPDATE 6:03 PM: Slate is more of an essay-driven operation. So I didn’t get to use some of the juicier quotes that I squeezed from folks in researching this story. Here are a few:

*“Compar[ing] with the FBI is like comparing the Neanderthal system of ‘one bang club on cave mean yes, two mean no,’ to the futuristic Star Trek vision of intergalactic communications that transcend time and distance. If Captain Kirk found himself in… the FBI headquarters building in D.C., he surely would tap the communicator on his chest with the comment ‘Scotty, beam me up, there is no intelligent life in this rectangular cave.'”

— former NSA officer

* “Guys would write their notes on legal pads, and lock them in a safe at night when they went home.”

— former FBI agent

* Every SAC [Special Agent in Charge of an FBI office] is his own king. And they don’t like people from other divisions coming into their kingdoms… If I’m working on an L.A. case, and I’ve got leads in Chicago, the attitude is, ‘Why Go?’ Everyone gets tied in knots.”

— former FBI agent

* “Everything the Bureau has been talking about, theyve had here for years… You cant believe how far ahead they are here.”

— U.S. Strategic Command analyst, formerly with the FBI.

(And before you ask: Yeah, I talked to current agents, too. They just weren’t as snarky as the exes.)

  • sglover

    Glad to see you’re writing for Slate. Their stable of writers is absolutely pathetic. Now, along with Fred Kaplan, there’ll be two reasons to look in on the site.

  • DS

    Ok, I can’t think of a way to relate this to Iran, or secret ultrasonic antigravity spyplanes, or even Google Mapping, so I give up…

  • kg2v

    Another factor I’ve rarely seen pointed out, and a reason SO many Government Computer projects go wrong.
    The whole way they have software development setup just will NOT work.
    There is a truism in software developers – the average programmer is 10 times better than the low end, and the top end is 10 times better than average – yes folks, there is a 100x factor there
    Now the trick to developing GOOD software on time/in budget is to get those top programmers, and eliminate the bottom ones (an aside – the reason Microsoft’s software gets worse is that as the become bigger, their percentage of programmers below average increases)
    So, why doesn’t the Government hire the top, and get rid of the bottom (who can actually be net NEGATIVE coders) – The problem with getting rid of the bottom is simple – unions. It’s really hard to show who doesn’t cut it, and who does, but if you were to ask the other coders, they’ll know
    As for not hiring the top, let me tell you a story. Right after 9/11 I looked into changing from the commercial sector to the Government sector – do something “real”. Looked through the offerings, and I laughed. One the average, in 2001, people like the FBI etc were paying LESS for a programmer with 10 years experience than I got as a Jr Programmer in 1991, and I’m NOT talking about adjusted for experience. I would have had to take about a 45% cut in pay to make the jump, and I’m NOT in banking or finance, where I could be earning around 40% more than I am here
    So, how do you attract TOP talent when you are paying well below average? A top programmer is going to pull in a 100K-150K pay rate. But remember, he will produce working software 10x better than the 60k programmer!
    I’ve known a few Government programmers – almost all of them were right out of school to get the experience, and they ALL left within a few years

  • Mike

    From the sound of it, this isn’t necessarily a software coding issue, but a network infrastructure issue. They have Software issues, but it sounds like connecting all the offices with a reliable network would be the first place to start.

  • Edward Liu

    kg2v: Are the FBI or the programmers for them even unionized? Not that a union wouldn’t make things harder, but after about 12 years in the business, I’ve found that it isn’t any easier to get fire rotten programmers in non-unionized environments. I think the spectre of unlawful termination lawsuits means a programmer has got to screw up regally and provably to be fired for cause. In almost every case, it’s easier to get a bad programmer to leave by giving them a poor performance review and no raise.
    I think every programmer who’s been in the biz for any length of time knows the rule about how much better a good programmer is than a bad one, and even how the truly bad programmers act as NEGATIVE headcount (meaning that their programming is so bad that other programmers waste time fixing all their SNAFUs). However, upper management and the bean counters have never seemed to be aware of how skill in programming makes one worker more valuable than another. In my time in the biz, I’ve seen the pendulum swing between “let’s send all the programming to India” and “let’s fire all our veterans and hire a bunch of college kids,” both of which are founded on the principle that 3 or 4 cheap programmers must be better than 1 expensive one.
    And, in any event, it really sounds like the FBI’s problems aren’t even getting THAT far.

  • MikeT

    There are no such programmer unions, especially not in contractor circles. Second, contracting jobs for the DoJ and DoD tend to pay significantly better in most areas than regular jobs because of the security clearances that are involved. All of that is basic public knowledge for those going to college for CS degrees near or working near/in areas with big contracting work. I’m not trying to be snarky, but I just don’t have any idea where you’re getting this information from because these agencies don’t really do any internal work. 95% of it is outsourced to defense and other contractors ranging from CGI-AMS to Lockheed Martin. Yes, Lockheed has a major IT sector to it, especially in Northern Virginia.

  • David Foster

    I don’t think the question of what kind of programmers the government should hire is directly relevant. Major gov’t computer projects are generally developed by contractors: the previous attempt at an FBI case management system was done by SAIC.

  • TimR

    Yes, the last attempt was made by SAIC. The problem was probably that they had special agents as the government reps. Special agents aren’t always the best fit for overseeing a project like this. But, at the FBI you have two types of people. You have Special Agents and ignorant peasants, or at least that is how they view it. Furthermore, the FBI went through like 11 changes of government rep. in 3 years. Basically, they dropped the ball on 911 as well.

  • Chris

    I truely think that this Country will be ovetaken by Private Interest Groups and the US Govt. so corrupted now and inadequate is going to be a figure Head like the King and Queen of England….The mismanagement and utter imcompetance is astrnomical!!!When these Beaurcrats leave office it is truely amazing that they are so peaceful and go making Huge dollars for Consulting–Who knows maybe Delay will consult other Congressmen on avoiding the
    legal things he is going through now.

  • pdquig

    Having led numerous process / systems implementations in complex, change-resistant organizations, it is certain that programmers have nothing to do with the FBI’s issues. My guess is that the troubles begin with the first step on the road: the lack of an accepted Problem Statement. If the FBI doesn’t really think it has a problem, cannot articulate it clearly, or cannot achieve buy-in from the key participants/stakeholders, then no amount of process modeling and system design is going to succeed.

  • jumb

    For over 20 years I have worked with all the major federal law enforcement agencies and their agents, and have been decorated for my work with and service to the FBI. I have seen first hand how the FBI works. Because of that experience I can say unequivocally that the FBI is incredibly, unbelievably backward in its day-to-day IT and data handling.
    While the FBI claims its technological modernization is made problematical because of concerns over national security, those federal agencies which deal exclusively with national security don’t seem to have apprehended or experienced the insurmountable obtsacles which the FBI’s keepers of the flame say they see. Rather, the major source of the backwardness is almost entirely the “Bu’s” Vaticanical culture of internal intrigue and bureaucratic feudalism.
    Couple that with a thorough indoctrination in arrogance and condescension toward its peers, unmatched in any hierarchical organization outside of the United States Marine Corps, and you have an agency which is, and will remain, technlogically incompetent and moribund. And oerhaps most surprisingly, 742876because of that supreme confidence in its own perfection, the FBI has no real grasp of what the hullaballo is all about.

  • AF

    This is just one more example of why we need small government. We need to let the private sector handle as much as possible.
    Take the TSA at airports for example. I cannot possibly believe that creating this huge bureaucracy has improved airport security. The airport security should have been left in the hands of private contractors…and economic bonuses or sanctions should have been imposed if they do not meet security criteria.
    Profit will motivate private firms to achieve greatness. NOTHING motivates government agencies to achieve greatness. They naturally all descent into death traps of bureaucracy.

  • Vincente

    Tom DeLay’s cronies wasted no time painting his Democratic opponent as “out of step” with his Houston area district.
    As an example, they highlighted his vote against the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
    This article, as well as looking at the TSA debacle, leads me to wonder why that seems so ‘out of step.’ I don’t think wasting money on ineptitude is so crazy.
    This information has given me a fantastic idea: find congresscreatures who voted against the creation of DHS and send them boxes of money.
    On second thought, I don’t think I’ll take that big of a hit to my wallet as a result of this doctrine.

  • Jaye

    The ultimate G. Man AKA FBI agent was J. Edgar Hoover! Sure he was gay and wore female clothes but he was the best! Modern day Feds are always politically correct, insecure at work, fearful of losing their jobs, have higher then normal alcohol, drug and marriage problems because they can’t reveal their true feeling and can’t talk about their jobs. They are take charge, intelligent, perfectionists but are suspicious and distrustful of outsiders and inflexible! These people need help! Especially after they missed the Fla. 9-11 pilots who did not want to learn to take off or land! Think J. Edgar people! Peace. Jaye