Sunday, August 20, 2006

Rearranging the Digital Furniture

In a digital age, every business is technologically on track except for the nation's business--the federal government.

Chertoffpondering_1
Lord help me for suggesting this, but we need a Bureau of Information Technology (BIT) within the federal government. Complete with staffing, salaries, vision and focus second to none, a Googlization of the Washington bureaucracy.
Make a note: Michael Chertoff is not the guy to run it.
Made a national priority (as if we didn't already have enough of those), BIT would be created by statute, an agency that answers only to the Congress, headed by a triumvirate of computer scientists. Very highly paid professionals, these three, who would oversee a Manhattan Project for the continuing hardware and software upgrades within government agencies.
Cross-platform access essential—no more turning a blind eye to an inability to reference between ‘protected turfs.’
Hacker_1 There isn’t a thing I do in my writing life that I did the same way even five years ago. There’s a certain humbling in the fact that high-speed Internet access intervenes nearly every aspect of my life today, from entertainment to elemental research. Check out the commercial interests within a cuddly sounding interest group? Done in a moment and no trip to the library.
The computer is king. Even the statement is old-timey, fuzzy with IBM room-sized computer imagery. Yet the fact is that virtually every daily function, including our elevators, cars, electrical grid and communications is computer-driven. It’s an empowering realization, exhilarating perhaps, but vulnerable to those who would (and could) hack their way into nearly anything of importance.
Spy And they will, which is why the stakes are so much higher than a success here, a failure there. Without doubt, the national secrets of the future will be fired off across the ether, rather than handed off in a folded newspaper. Our new-age treasons will no longer be tucked behind a loose brick in a wall.
In between Congress and the administration, we have government agencies stumbling around, upsetting the digital furniture and inventing their own solutions to disparate problems.
  • The FBI, after four years and $600 million has a system (or lack thereof) it abandoned as hopeless. 12,000 agents who can’t get through to their supervisor and are unable to access documents from the field.
  • The IRS, a computer-resolvable agency if there ever was one, will be farming out collections (below the level of $25,000) to run-of-the-mill collection agencies. That particular admission of the agency’s  ‘lack of a solution’ will cost 33 cents on every dollar collected and antagonize an enormous percent of the population at the same time. A double-deficit.
  • The Pentagon has lost complete track of $1 trillion in monies spent as of 2001 and, since then, presumably misplaced another $600 billion. That last figure is based on their budget and their own admission that they continue to lose 25% of all monies allocated.
  • Homeland Security is leaking from so many holes in the dike that their scurrying minions haven’t the time to consider computer-accessible linkup. The money at DHS merely pours through the fingers of the inept, as Chertoff speaks publicly and dithers institutionally.
  • One can only guess at how foggy it may be at Foggy Bottom. Rice’s State Department (as all those before her) is so busy killing snakes, it no doubt depends upon Google to guide it’s shaky finger to the pulse of worldwide events. The ubiquitous CNN, monitored in every office, is not a governmental organization, but well might be.
Fbiterrorannouncement Consider the Department of Agriculture. It alone comprises sixty-four administrative subsections within its gargantuan structure. Run that out as far as you will, agency by agency, and it becomes readily apparent that the FBI model was doomed to failure. Had it been a success, what would the interface with nineteen other agencies, responsible for national security, have been?
If you answered zero, advance directly to GO and collect $200.
The horror story at the FBI is a cautionary tale, not to be ignored. And yet the ball in this faltering dash toward an undefined goal has been lateralled off to Lockheed Martin. Authorized by a cozy little $305 million contract that (if previous efforts are a guide) will balloon to a billion or so, the Bureau may end up with something of value.
But to whom and to what interagency purpose?
Information of every conceivable sort, collected across international borders, is the modern paradigm, essential to efforts against druglords, terrorists, spies and whomsoever else would do us harm as a nation. Yet that information is unavailable between the national agencies charged with its interpretation. Turf wars, they call the sequestering of bits and pieces, the withholding of elements within the puzzle that forms a picture of national vulnerability.
Turf wars and the isolation of a single FBI agent brought down the World Trade Center as much as the planes that struck them. Five years later, we are mired in crossed purposes. The elemental first steps of information integration have yet to be taken. It cannot and should not be done agency by agency, disparate system by disparate system, turf-defender by turf-defender, each incoming administration cleaning up the mess of its predecessor.
But it probably will.
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