FBI hot on records management case

For most of its 94-year history, records management at the FBI was as basic as paper documents stashed in a cardboard box and stuffed under an agent's desk. But William Hooton intends to change that.

Hooton, who helped introduce digital imaging to the Internal Revenue Service in the 1970s and to the National Archives and Records Administration in the 1980s, was hired in March to bring modern electronic records management to the FBI. His mission, he said, is to move the FBI "from the era of Hoover to the modern age."

Embarrassed last year by the Timothy McVeigh records fiasco and laboring to build a user-friendly automated case management system, senior FBI officials concluded that building a well-organized electronic records system is essential.

"Records management is at the heart of the FBI's integrity as a law enforcement organization," FBI Director Robert Mueller told a House committee this spring. "We must be able to eliminate any doubt about the accuracy, completeness and fairness of our investigations."

Now that the FBI has assembled its Records Management Division, the next step is to determine just what records the FBI possesses, Hooton said.

"The FBI has more than a billion pages of information in its archives," most of them on paper, said Robert Chiaradio, who recently stepped down as the FBI's chief of administration.

That's a guess, Hooton said. "We really won't know until we do an inventory," he said. "I'm sure we have trash, duplicate copies and lots of stuff we can get rid of." The idea is to build an electronic records system that FBI agents can use from their desktop computers to find records relevant to the cases they handle.

Hooton plans to start by creating electronic versions of the FBI's case files by scanning them. The process creates a digital image of each paper document. The bureau has the capability to scan about a million documents in 24 hours, he said.

Even so, "we will never convert all of it" to digital, Hooton said. Files unlikely to be used again will be kept in their present form, which is either paper or microfilm.

When the digital files have been made, if they are clear, they can be read by an optical character recognition system, which converts the digital image into digital text. The text can then be searched for keywords or phrases, enabling fast and easy retrieval of records by agents.

Handwritten documents, documents with unclear text, photos and other records that lack easy-to-read text will have to be manually tagged so they can be retrieved during searches, Hooton said.

Ideally, Hooton said his goal is to create a single central records repository, but he may have to settle for several smaller repositories linked electronically.

Building the records management system alone won't solve all of the FBI's records management problems, Mueller said. He plans to have "every employee at the FBI attend a full day of back-to- basics training [that] focuses extensively on proper document production, retrieval and management," he told Congress.

Hooton, meanwhile, is busy filling the Records Management Division. "I fully intend to attract the best people I can," he said. "I'm on the prowl."

He has already hired two senior records managers from NARA to fill two of five Senior Executive Service slots. They are Michael Miller, director of NARA's Modern Records Programs, and Marie Allen, director of the Life Cycle Management Division of Modern Records Programs.

The e-records system will become part of a new FBI-wide system of computers and networks called Trilogy, which should be in place at the end of 2003.

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New priorities

Questions were raised about FBI records management when the agency belatedly discovered more than 3,100 pages of records that it had failed to turn over to defense lawyers for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

An inspector general's investigation blamed the missing document debacle on "antiquated and inefficient computer systems, inattention to information management and inadequate quality control systems." FBI Director Robert Mueller responded by creating a Records Management Division. With almost 1,000 employees, 22 units and five Senior Executive Service managers, it is the largest division in the FBI's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"That's the Records Management Division, guys. Unbelievable," said William Hooton, assistant director of the FBI's Records Management Division, in an address June 28 to government records managers and vendors. "Records management has always been at the bottom of the pile. It has always gotten the least respect," he said in an interview. But records are critical, especially for an agency like the FBI.

"Now, all of a sudden, records management is getting a lot of attention, and rightly so," Hooton said.

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