State negotiates knowledge

No agency was more stunned than the State Department to find out that two of the hijackers responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had been on the CIA's terrorist watch list.

If system alerts had been in place, would their visa applications have been rubber-stamped? If the CIA had shared its watch list with other agencies, would the hijackers have been tracked down and stopped?

Despite the Monday morning quarterbacking, the "what ifs" and "whys," State officials have known for years that their communications network is inadequate — an aging and unreliable remnant of the Cold War era.

Compounding the problem, the CIA, FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service databases are not interconnected, so data is not shared among the federal agencies responsible for identifying potential terrorists or other criminal suspects.

Now, a project conceived following the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania — and before the events of Sept. 11 — is about to take off. Called the Overseas Presence Interagency Collaboration/Knowledge Management System, the project will provide a secure environment in which employees stationed around the world can exchange and analyze information.

And it's arriving not a moment too soon for experts who say the United States remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

"It's a complicated process, particularly when you are dealing with many posts around the world and many agencies" in Washington, D.C., said Lewis Kaden, who led the Overseas Presence Advisory Panel that first recommended overseas data sharing in 1999. "But there does seem to be some determination to put the shoulders behind the wheel."

State, in fact, is putting the pedal to the metal in an extraordinary effort to break down its own Tower of Babel, using the high-tech tools of the 21st century to communicate with its outposts. Ironically, every piece of technology already exists, but it will take experts with know-how to create a solution that pulls everything together.

"We will have the ability to be more proactive and have the ability to prevent, rather than simply react," said Tony Muse of State's Foreign Affairs Systems Integration program. The Sept. 11 attacks "put a different rubric behind knowledge sharing throughout the government."

Test Run

The new demands for action are reflected in a pilot project launched May 13 with U.S. embassies in Mexico and India and at State. The program will test how State and other agencies can communicate quickly, relying on information sharing instead of information denial.

Mexico was selected because its infrastructure is stable and because many issues concerning policy, crisis management and administrative support could crop up. India was chosen because its infrastructure is unstable and could provide lessons about working in conditions more commonly found in underdeveloped countries, according to Muse.

Prime contractor Accenture — assisted by Booz Allen Hamilton and General Dynamics Corp. — is running a 20-week pilot project with about 2,400 users testing the system.

Congress appropriated $17 million for the initiative's first two phases — first a prototype and now a pilot project — in the hopes of enabling employees across the world or across the hall to collaborate in real time. The project will be evaluated by the end of the year, and a full rollout is expected in 2004 after the contract is put out for bid again.

"It is a program that had its genesis out of crisis," said Bruce Froehlich, the Accenture partner in charge of the project. "What they came to understand was that if you tried to design a system only to be used in crisis, people [wouldn't] know how to use it. What we tried to do was devise a system to do the boring things you do every day."

Technology experts say that is not an impossible job. "We're not talking about creating any new data sources, we're just talking about making the existing data sources useful before the fact, rather than after it," said Tim Hoescht, senior vice president for technology at Oracle Service Industries, testifying last November before the House Government Reform Committee's Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee. Any part of the State system that requires a separate database will use Oracle's relational database.

To make it work, information with a sensitive designation — slightly higher than unclassified — will be accessible via a Web portal on a private network. The private Web site — ICZ.gov — will be available "by invitation and authorization only," Muse said.

But what may seem easy on paper is definitely not so in reality, according to experts in the field.

"You are really talking about changing the way federal agencies do work with their people overseas," said General Dynamic's Glenn Yeaw, advanced program manager for collaborative technology services.

"A lot of this is cultural, not technical," Yeaw said. "How do you get an organization to stop working in a physical environment and work in a virtual environment?"

Virtual Meeting Place

For starters, you give agencies the tools to interact in a virtual environment, saving the time and money it used to take to fly employees to a conference and brainstorm together.

Then you develop the system that enables a worker stationed at an embassy to talk to a person from a different agency online and in real time — all without having to route a memo through Washington, D.C., where it can get lost or garbled.

And finally, you enable every agency to speak the same language and exploit information regardless of where it was created.

"All the information that is in the collaboration zone is placed there by the participating agency," Muse said.

That means that a visa applicant may face scrutiny far from the embassy or consulate where he applied for a clearance. The network will enable the embassy officer to instantly check with the FBI, the CIA or nearly 40 other agencies to see if the applicant's name pops up.

It also will give workers at embassies and consulates access to standard and customized database applications, file sharing, e-mail services and real-time chat rooms. The system's software will be available from commercial or U.S. government sources.

But what sounds good doesn't always meet the massive requirements of State's needs, according to French Caldwell, vice president of knowledge management for Gartner Inc.

"The technology is not that hard," Caldwell said. "But try to get the guy from the Agriculture Department [at an embassy] to send an e-mail across the hall to the science and technology guy. Why is it hard in the State Department?" he asked.

For one thing, he said, it is important to get everyone operating as a team and eliminate turf wars. For another, all e-mail currently gets routed back to Washington. Along the way, attachments can be stripped out or a message may become unreadable by the time it reaches its destination.

"Can they share information? Can they all get on board to project the image of the United States in a single voice?" Caldwell asked. "Companies have to do that all the time. But can the U.S. government do it? I don't see how. It is a real challenge."

Although culture is one obstacle, technology may be the bulldozer State needs.

Among the products tapped for the project is InfoWorkSpace, developed by Ezenia Inc.

Currently used by intelligence agencies and the military, this office tool enables virtual conferencing from anywhere in the world. It provides everything from instant messaging for real-time communications to shared on-screen white boards that far-flung staff can draw on to exchange ideas.

Another product, by Autonomy Corp., provides an information retrieval feature and content categorization engine. It provides links to other relevant sites as well as instant analysis of new information entered into the system.

The development of this technology may have been too late to stop the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but in hindsight it could have worked, according to many now studying what happened.

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.) recently said that an internal FBI memo written last summer citing an unusual number of Middle Eastern students taking flying lessons in the Phoenix area was not placed in the right hands for analysis.

"We failed to put the puzzle together before the horrific event," Graham told CNN.

Once the knowledge management system is in place, officials hope to harvest the right information at the right time and connect the dots to avert a disaster.

"It is a big program," Accenture's Froehlich said, "but instead of having a fireman come in and put out the fire, you will be able to put out the fire yourself."

***

Key components of State's system

Main contractors -- Core technology contributions

Accenture -- Prime contractor. Proprietary technologies include eGovernment Accelerator, Interactive Messaging Service and Accenture.com, a contact management system.

Booz Allen Hamilton -- Subcontractor. Focus includes security and network consulting services.

General Dynamics Corp. -- Subcontractor. Focus includes categorization and taxonomy consulting services.

Other vendors -- Core technology contributions

Accelio Corp. -- Forms management.

Autonomy Corp. -- Content aggregation, search, taxonomy categorization.

Entrust Inc. -- Public-key infrastructure products.

Ezenia Inc. -- InfoWorkSpace for secure virtual conferencing, instant messaging, bulletin boards.

iPlanet (a division of Sun Microsystems Inc.) -- Directory services.

Microsoft Corp. -- Operating system, custom application components, e-mail services.

NFR Security -- Intrusion detection, security management.

Oracle Corp. -- Relational database.

SeeBeyond Technology Corp. -- Enterprise application integration.

Veritas Software Corp. -- Backup, database clustering.

Vignette Corp. -- Enterprise portal, content management, workflow, multichannel (mobile) delivery.

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