In 1998, the Justice Department began an ambitious program to bring the nation’s law enforcement communications into the 21st century. The project eventually forged a partnership with the Departments of Homeland Security and Treasury to create a new wireless communication system that was supposed to support more than 81,000 federal agents, replacing their aging radios and enabling compatibility with state and local police.
Fourteen years later, an internal audit has found the project cost taxpayers more than $356 million and has been so poorly executed that Justice's two sister agencies have abandoned it. And officials are recommending scrapping it all together.
That has left most law enforcement officers to rely on their old antiquated radios, still unable to easily communicate with colleagues in other agencies and increasingly in danger of having their communications intercepted by sophisticated criminals like Mexican drug lords.
“The Department’s law enforcement components are still using old and often obsolete equipment,” the Justice inspector general recently reported. “There is limited interoperability between the components and with other law enforcement agencies.”
For its expensive and lengthy record of futility, the Justice Department's Integrated Wireless Network wins this week's Golden Hammer, a weekly Washington Guardian distinction that highlights the worst example of waste, fraud or abuse in government.
The project was conceived to update the radio and handheld communication capabilities of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Agency; the FBI; and the U.S. Marshal's Service. Originally intended to cost $5 billion over the course of 25 years, the project has progressed little due to uneven funding and lack of cooperation as DHS and the Treasury have started developing their own systems.
Funding for the project was finally put on hold this year due to budget cuts, and the inspector general is suggesting it might be best to just scrap the project in favor of smart phone technology, something not available when the project was conceived.
Some of the currently used radio equipment is not just old – it is insecure. Modern communication encryption is missing from many of the Department’s radio units, although the exact percentage was withheld to keep officials safe. This allowed a group of drug smugglers to escape in Nashville, Tenn. after they scanned DEA radio frequencies and learned the agents were closing in.
And in Grand Junction, Colo., an agent was unable to radio to the rest of the group that he had identified a violent criminal. Without knowing the identity, another agent approached the suspect who drew a gun.
Justice officials say they are ready to change course.
“As the report acknowledges, changing circumstances have required the Department to significantly change the scope and deployment approaches for the IWN program,” Assistant Attorney General for Administration Lee Lofthus said in a response to the audit.
“What has not changed,” he added, “is the Department’s commitment to implementing a reliable, secure, inter operable Land Mobile Radio system for its tactical wireless communications.”
Lofthus said the success of IWN must be measured against goals that change with technology, not against objectives suggested in 1998.
“The Department has achieved significant improvements in the wireless communications capabilities delivered to our law enforcement agents,” he said, citing several successful efforts around the country to improve communication.
“The Department acknowledges and agrees that there are many issues with its wireless communications systems that it is addressing,” Lofthus added. “Nonetheless, it is important to note that the project from its outset was sweeping in terms of its organization dimensions,…had significant technical complexity, and would require an extended multi-year timetable for implementation.”
A previous investigation by the Inspector General, released in 2007, found the project “was at high risk of failing” to attain its goals.
The money that has been spent has gone to piecemeal improvements of communication capabilities around the country, much of it centered on the nation’s capital.
“There is still a need for an improved communications system,” the report said. “While IWN may no longer be the best solution, a solution is desperately needed.”