Ashcroft: Justice needs IT upgrades

As the Justice Department shifts its focus from prosecuting crimes that have already occurred to identifying and preventing terrorism before it happens, Attorney General John Ashcroft last week called on senior department managers to find a way to improve the agency's information technology.

Announcing what he called a "war-time reorganization and mobilization" Nov. 8, Ashcroft said, "We must have information technology from this decade, not from several generations ago. "Major city police departments are better equipped today than is the Justice Department," Ashcroft told an assembly of senior Justice officials.

Better computers and databases, more access to the Internet and greater capability to share information are essential in the battle against terrorism, he said.

Ashcroft told senior Justice managers to "develop a comprehensive information technology plan to support strategic goals and improve information management." He also instructed them to "develop and implement a service plan that is citizen-centered and includes appropriate online citizen accessibility."

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Justice officials asked the public to send information about terrorism to a crime tips Web site, which received tens of thousands of responses.

Ashcroft also directed department leaders to assess the intelligence analysis capabilities of their organizations "and, where deficient, improve such capacity."

In concert with the new emphasis on counterterrorism, the FBI is speeding up its Trilogy project. The three-year project — now to be completed in about 18 months — aims to build a Web-based system that uses computers to help organize and analyze information in investigations.

As Ashcroft spoke, a congressional conference committee approved a $21.5 billion spending bill for Justice for fiscal 2002. That is $612 million more than the agency received in 2001, and $554 million more than President Bush originally requested.

Of the total, $3.6 billion goes to the FBI — $335 million more than the bureau received in 2001. House Appropriations Committee members said some of the new funding is intended to help the FBI upgrade its IT systems.

The time is right for a "technological revolution to occur inside the Justice Department," said Jack Riley, a former Justice official and now director of criminal justice research at the think tank Rand Corp. "The time to try to do that is in the context of a larger transition," such as the one Ashcroft is setting in motion to focus on terrorism, he said.

But it is hard to predict how beneficial better computer systems will be for the FBI and Justice, he said. Law enforcement agencies, particularly at the federal level, have lagged "horrendously behind" the private sector in using computer systems to manage information and analyze intelligence, he said.

The budget increases for the FBI and Justice come as no surprise in the midst of a war on terrorism, said David Muhlhausen, a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation and a former staff member on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Given Congress' current mood, "I don't think there will be a problem for them getting more money" if they need it, he said. But Ashcroft must proceed cautiously. Lawmakers might resist if more spending on IT means cuts in programs such as grants to state and local law enforcement agencies, he said.


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