Inadequate IT blinds embassies, panel says

William Jackson

The Bush administration is going forward with an information infrastructure pilot planned for civilian agency personnel at two U.S. embassies.

The pilot grew out of a study done after the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The State Department's 25-member Overseas Presence Advisory Panel found foreign installations lacking not only physical security but also basic communications.

'The U.S. overseas presence is near a state of crisis' and 'perilously close to the point of system failure,' the panel concluded in its November 1999 report.

More than 30 agencies share 260 U.S. embassy facilities in 170 countries, but most of their employees 'cannot e-mail colleagues in other agencies, even in the same building, let alone share data with colleagues in different groups or countries,' the panel said.

'The government of Germany found it easier to communicate with Washington agencies directly over the Internet, bypassing the embassy, where Internet communication was not available,' it said.

The panel estimated that an off-the-shelf, secure but unclassified communications system would cost about $200 million. Another $130 million could put a classified system in place.

The General Services Administration is now conducting a procurement of basic e-mail, Internet access and collaborative applications for agency staffs in Mexico City and New Delhi, India, said Fernando Burbano, State's chief information officer.

Worry about security has been one reason for the lack of connectivity at foreign posts.

'Information security will rightly always be a concern,' the panel's report said. But getting information 'is often more important than policing access to it. We must optimize our overall management of information'with security one of several major considerations, not an all-conquering imperative.'

Because foreign mission facilities are shared, no single agency has the power to implement the needed infrastructure, the panel said.

'To overcome the cultural barriers that keep agencies from working together will require presidential leadership,' the panel concluded.

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