Justice Department

Eric Holder’s IT legacy

Eric Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder intends to step down after six years leading the Justice Department.

In his six years at the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric Holder has been a lightning rod on a variety of issues from immigration reform and the banking crisis to the fight against terrorism and his support the National Security Agency's data surveillance programs. Along with those controversial stances, he also led DOJ during a period when it adapted to an increasingly complex law enforcement and cyber IT environment.

While Holder, like other attorneys general, has had little direct influence on IT operations, a current Justice Department IT official commenting on background said strengthened portfolio management at DOJ and across the government have helped improve IT outcomes.

Leadership engagement, when it comes, is directed from the deputy attorney general, James Cole. Over the past six years, said the DOJ official, three CIOs during Holder’s tenure have taken a progressively more active role in modernizing the department’s IT operations, through stronger management under PortfolioStat and a more functional and active DOJ CIO Council, which brings together IT leadership from agency components. With the exception of FBI's troubled Sentinel case management system -- which started under a prior administration but has seen problems persist -- the number and visibility of IT issues under Holder's tenure have been relatively few, the official said.

A sense of urgency

Two IT developments stand out for Van Hitch, who was Justice Department CIO from 2002 to 2011.

The first was when WikiLeaks released a trove of stolen diplomatic cables. Hitch and his staff were charged by Holder with leading an upgrade of IT security. While Justice Department information wasn't compromised by WikiLeaks, Hitch told FCW the event "was a wake-up call to everybody" to get their own house in order, and the effort was aggressively managed.

"I think we did it faster than these initiatives typically go by quite a bit. We depended on support and visibility from the fourth and fifth floors to engender that kind of urgency," Hitch said. Top officials also strongly backed the implementation of the Unified Financial Management System, an $850 million overhaul to integrate systems at the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Prisons and other components into a single tool that standardizes business processes for procurement and financial reporting.

Overall, according to the Justice Department's 2014-2016 strategic management plan for IT issued in April, the agency's top IT operations managers have been wrestling with many of the same issues that other agencies have, from how to retain a skilled IT workforce to shrinking budgets.

"The pressure to deliver greater, more cost-effective IT capabilities to end users underscores the importance of being responsible stewards of the taxpayer dollars that fund our investments," Kevin Deeley, acting CIO in the department's Justice Management Division, Office of the Chief Information Officer, said in the plan.

"In partnership with the component bureaus, DOJ will execute the goals and objectives in this strategic plan in a way that not only optimizes our IT spending, but also improves the capabilities and services we deliver to the department’s employees and the public at large," he said.

Deeley said the goals for the OCIO's office from 2014 to 2016 include institutionalizing IT portfolio management, streamlining IT operations to serve customers, enhancing IT security, as well as expanding information sharing.

Facing the cyber threat

Despite Holder's traditional hands-off approach to agency IT, during his tenure he has had to deal with sinister emerging cyber threats both domestically and globally.

Just a day before news of Holder's departure broke, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Council and Interpol Washington announced the latest information sharing and collaboration effort aimed at transnational crime. The effort includes formation of a dedicated Interpol Foreign Terrorist Fighter program that will leverage Interpol resources to combat crime that crosses international borders. Those resources, said the Justice Department, include Interpol's secure, encrypted communications system, its criminal and analytical databases and its system of advisory notices.

The Justice Department's domestic law enforcement arm, the FBI, has been grappling with an increasingly cunning, technically savvy international cybercriminal community aiming botnets and other electronic assaults at U.S. critical infrastructure providers as well as the general public.

For instance, at the end of August, the agency warned health care providers they had been targeted in what appeared to be one of the largest disclosed cyber attacks based on the Heartbleed Open SSL vulnerability that was uncovered last spring.

About the Authors

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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