New systems sharpen investigative edge
GCN: What is information
technologys role at the Drug Enforcement Administration?
CAMERO: It is fairly substantial.
I recall a number of years ago when the special agent in charge of the New
York bureau was visiting headquarters. We were talking about the role of technology in his
operation. His comment was very telling. He said, conservatively, 70 percent to 75 percent
of the cases in DEA could not be made without the support of computers and technology.
That tells me just how important technology is in our business, and
thats why we focus on it so much.
Within DEA, my role is to provide a strategy to which other departments can
The strategy basically has to do with direction and vision and to facilitate
interaction between the IT group and other DEA and Justice Department divisions.
I also get feedback as to whether the strategies make any sense for the other
divisions. Once that is done, then we can integrate that into an overall strategy.
Cooperating and coordinating with other Justice agencies has been very
interesting, especially lately. We spend a lot of time looking at what other agencies are
doing to learn what lessons they have learned and to avoid reinvention of solutions they
have already come up with.
GCN: How have your personnel and
budget changed in the IT shop?
CAMERO: Our personnel is sitting at around 120 full-time employees; our budget is
about $81 million.
Personnel has dropped between 1980 and today.
It was as high as 148 employees, so we have taken some fairly significant cuts
along the way.
In terms of our budget, our 1980 budget was $4 million, but youd have to
translate that into dollar value then.
The personnel cut has been somewhat remedied by technological improvements.
For example, we did not have database management systems. We got those in the early 1980s.
We have also continued to acquire design tools and that has helped a lot.
But probably the biggest offset has been in the use of contracting support. We
have picked up contracting people for some functions, such as data entry and running the
help desk, and other things industry is good at, such as designing and integrating
GCN: Has technology improved working conditions
for agents in the field?
CAMERO: Yes. There was a Justice report that said the best thing that has happened in the
entire history of DEA is it has cut down the time we spend at the office, which means we
spend more time on the streets doing things that agents are good at.
It has cut down from weeks to hours the time agents spend producing reports.
Technology has also provided a much richer base for supporting cases in the
You dont have to go that far back in history to appreciate the
contribution of technology. An agent, for example, used to have to know lots and lots of
systems and be able to interact with them and know how to use them.
We developed a multisource query that relieves the agent from having to know
all those systems. With that, an agent can access multiple databases and systems.
GCN: Have you had to design new systems to meet the administrations emphasis on
CAMERO: Sure. For example, the administration wanted to address the issue of violent
crime. The DEA administrator came up with a strategy that said state and local officials
can ask for help wherever there is a hot spot, and we will send in a DEA team to
Weve had to develop systems that would get information to those mobile
teams. That means we had to develop good security approaches to how the mobile teams
access the corporate databases.
Also, early on there was an initiative that said we ought to be spending more
time sharing information between federal and state officials. In response to that, we
created a DEA-FBI system called DrugX.
DEA and FBI provide information into the system, and it provides a point of
contact. So an FBI or a DEA agent would know if anyone else is interested in a specific
The state and local version of that is called the National Drug Pointer Index
System. DEA contributes data to that and where there happens to be a match in terms of
interest, the cooperating agents are notified and they can pursue the case together.
GCN: Describe some of DEAs other major
CAMERO: Obviously, our corporate systems are major in terms of direct mission support. The
Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Information System is the bread and butter of DEA. We also
have systems that are directed at how cartels and criminals communicateprimarily
telephone systems. We have databases for that.
Another fairly significant system is one that tracks drug evidence. Another is
the application of sentencing guidelines. For example, if the evidence shows [a crime] to
be above or below a certain level, the sentencing can be much more severe.
We have a number of laboratories where all drugs seized are sent for testing.
They determine the amount and purity of the drugs. That is then presented as court
It is also used to tell us about relationships of things like manufacturers
and trends and we use that information for intelligence.
GCN: What new systems would you like to design?
CAMERO: Digital signature. That has a direct relationship to our business
process. For example, the objective of one system, called Firebird, is to automate
But an agent or supervisor must sign those records.
Right now, without digital signature, we have to relate the electronic version
to the paper version. With electronic signature, we wont necessarily have to do that
as stringently as we do today.
I think there is enough technology out there to design a digital signature
program for DEA, and I hope to be testing a pilot in the next six months.
GCN: Would other agencies accept
CAMERO: Yes, which is why we have opened a dialogue within Justice. The objective
is not to maintain these investigative records within DEA. Sooner or later, they have to
be sent to U.S. attorneys and be presented in courts. At least from that standpoint,
digital signature would help the business process.
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GCN: Does DEA have to constantly
build newer systems to be ahead of drug traffickers who also rely on technology?
CAMERO: In the security area, yes. We are constantly looking for technology that addresses
security. It is not necessarily true in large corporate systems, which require long-term
concerted commitment and organization.
GCN: How do you measure whether the money you
spend on IT projects has produced adequate results?
CAMERO: That is very difficult because it is a two-step process. We can define how
technology affects the quality of production of a particular agent or an administrative
person. But it is much more difficult defining whether increased effectiveness of an agent
or an administrative person is making life better for the taxpayers.
We do it for the purposes of the Government Performance and Results Act by
defining very broad measures. We are in the process of doing that now.
Attorney General Janet Reno lays the general strategy. If she is going to go
after violent crime, which I believe she is, then DEA has to contribute somehow to the
reduction of actual violent crime and the perception of violent crime.
I believe the administrator will expand the mobile units I talked about by
Right now, if a sheriff wants help, we send units to his office. We might have
to tailor our reaction to requests for help differently because the nature of crime
differs from area to area.
Technology will have to follow the infusion of people into a crime situation.