Man on a mission
- By Bryant Jordan
- Oct 29, 2000
Bob Dies' mission — and he has chosen to accept it — is to use his private-sector
experience to bring the FBI into the modern age of technology.
FBI officials contacted Dies this summer at his home in Westport, Conn.,
to see if the retired IBM Corp. executive would be interested in taking
an extremely complex and sensitive job at the agency — assistant director
of its Information Resources Division. After a series of interviews, the
agency offered Dies the post and he accepted.
In an agency dominated by seasoned agents, Dies is a rarity: a professional
brought in from outside to oversee a major division. But it was his 30-year
career with IBM and even his unfamiliarity with the FBI that, in the words
of FBI Director Louis Freeh, made Dies "the right man at the right time
for perhaps the toughest job in the FBI today."
Dies' task is to change an agency entrenched in its ways and hampered
by obsolete technology systems. The process starts with assessing the situation.
The tough part comes later — actually upgrading outmoded systems and networks,
getting the FBI divisions to share information and establishing communications
links to other agencies.
Some changes can begin almost immediately, although Dies conceded that
it won't be easy to change a corporate culture that blocks IT growth. "I
think we can get a large part of this started in a year or two," he said.
"It took 10 to 12 years to get this obsolete."
Dies, 54, brings several attributes to the job, including a background
in computer systems and a successful management career with an international
company. He considers working for the FBI a civic contribution.
Jim Gant, a former IBM colleague, said Dies "encourages speed and rapid
education, but he does it with a sense of humor. [He] has the ability to
think outside the box, well beyond the issue or topic at hand, to look at
the long-term ramifications [of an action]," he said.
He also has a management style that encourages participation even from
employees "four or five levels down the ladder," Gant said.
Dies must not only tell the bureau what it needs to do but must also
help convince congressional appropriators that the upgrades should be funded.
FBI and Justice Department officials know that cost overruns on past IT
programs have made Congress increasingly wary of giving the agencies money.
In an earlier incarnation, the technology upgrade now under Dies' authority
was a $430 mil-lion communications system for agents called the Information
Sharing Initiative. Justice Department Chief Information Officer Steve Colgate
recently called it a "grandiose, half-billion-dollar approach that did not
go over well with the appropriators."
The program, which relied heavily on upgrading legacy phone systems,
was then revised to incorporate Internet technologies and renamed eFBI.
Making it a Web-based system dramatically reduced its costs.
That name, too, has gone by the board. Under the current plan, the program
is designed to improve communications with other agencies as well as internally.
Dies would not disclose the estimated cost for the technology upgrade. But
he has already briefed Congress on the funding plans. "We're waiting to
hear back, waiting for Congress to pass the budget," he said.
When Dies joined the FBI, he entered a world where people work — often
in frustration — with out-of-date computers and within a structure that
limits information sharing.
Upon arrival, Dies said, "I was expecting to be unimpressed with the
[IT] infrastructure. I was more unimpressed than I expected to be." He said
he could only wonder "what they could do if they had the tools."
But he added, "I expected to be very impressed with the agents — they've
got a great reputation. You know what? They're even better than that."
According to Dies, the FBI has spent a great deal of money over the
years on systems that have primarily helped local law enforcement. This
includes IT programs that facilitate fingerprint and criminal background
checks, he said.
"They all do a wonderful job of helping local law enforcement agencies,
but we've not spent enough money upgrading the infrastructure for our own
agents," he said. "In many instances, systems are simply obsolete."
In the end, the FBI expects to give field agents an IT system that will
enhance their investigations by permitting them to communicate with each
other on cases and share information. Dies said he hopes that initiative
will take no longer than three or four years to deploy — his timeline for
staying at the FBI.
Along with a structure that discourages communication with other federal
agencies, the old system adheres to a philosophy wherein each FBI division — white-collar crime, national security and others — operates within its
own sphere. Sometimes this means that agents in one arm of the FBI are unaware
that another division has information vital to their investigation, Dies
Fixing the problem required more than just management skills. "[Freeh]
decided he needed someone who wasn't biased with the old system," Dies said.
"We have got to do a better job of knowing what we know. This also means
knowing what other agencies know and sharing that data," he said. "Under
the FBI upgrade, the bureau wants to improve its communications with other
agencies like the CIA and [the] National Security Agency."
"We can find better ways to communicate with other agencies than we
already do," Dies said. "We should not just talk to ourselves."