Experts divided over use of CRM to prevent terrorism

Security and terrorism experts have mixed opinions about CRM vendors' claims made to Congress earlier this week that a CRM-type system might have helped law enforcement and intelligence agencies prevent the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Tom Siebel, CEO of Siebel Systems Inc. in San Mateo, Calif., a customer relationship management software (CRM) vendor, and others made the assertion Tuesday to a congressional subcommittee looking at ways to improve information management at federal agencies. During the hearing, Siebel outlined the publicly known activities of some of the Sept. 11 terrorists to show how a CRM-like system would have made those actions more conspicuous to law enforcement and intelligence officials (see story).

CRM in a commercial setting is designed to allow the various parts of a business that might not ordinarily communicate to share information. For instance, a telephone sales representative using a CRM system could access warehouse inventory or call up a customer's purchases on the company Web site. This would prevent duplication of efforts and conflicting or inconsistent sales pitches.

CRM's proponents said this model could be used by law enforcement agencies to track the movements of known criminals or suspicious individuals. For example, a U.S. Customs Service agent would be able to call up information gathered by the FBI or CIA on an individual stopped for a questionable passport.

Not everyone is buying Siebel's ideas, but even those who did conceded that the reluctance of federal agencies to share intelligence information would make the success of such a system difficult.

"CRM is a bad, bad, bad, bad model," said Robert David Steele, an intelligence consultant and 25-year veteran of U.S. Intelligence Services and author of On Intelligence: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World, OSS 2001. "The model you need is a network of smart human beings."

Steele said that a vast peer-to-peer computer network should be created to help law enforcement and intelligence operatives communicate at all levels of government and with other countries, as well as with the private sector. But he said he doubts whether CRM will make that happen.

"In many ways, CRM is the opposite of peer-to-peer computing," Steele said. "CRM is a disaster."

CRM puts the emphasis on technology and removing people from the equation, Steele said, while the key is to put people in charge of the system. He said he doesn't believe that CRM has been that successful in the private sector and to use it in the federal government wouldn't achieve the goals Siebel has set out.

Others, however, said a system based on the principles of CRM might work.

"There are some real attributes that would work," said Ben Weeks, executive director of the Arlington-Va.-based Strategic Issues Research Institute of the U.S. Phil Anderson, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, also saw potential in a CRM-type system.

"If every agency of government was forthcoming and willing to share information, then [Siebel] is absolutely right," Anderson said.

But all three said they doubt that government agencies will have an easy time embracing the idea of sharing information to make such a system work.

Weeks said all the agencies involved, on the federal level at least, would have to overcome entrenched bureaucracies that are dedicated to compartmentalization and secrecy. Retraining those bureaucracies would take time and require a great deal of effort, he said.

Anderson went further and said the agencies simply don't need to overcome their desire for secrecy. These agencies must overcome their hesitation to share information with one another and with state and local authorities. For the system to truly work, the agencies also would need to gather and share information from private sector sources, which presents an even higher hurdle, he said.

Steele, however, expressed the strongest doubt that agencies such as the CIA and the FBI would build a joint database of any kind. "The CIA and FBI will absolutely screw up any major computer project they take on."

A Defense Department consultant, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also had doubt that the agencies could cooperate enough to build such a system. But she added that many government officials don't understand terrorism or its causes. Their attempts to fight it are often counterproductive because they don't understand the cultures, countries and people that are spawning terrorism. "The information [that goes into a database] is no better than the person asking the question at the other end," she said.

Steele had similar complaints and said that the CIA and FBI lack the ability and the resources to work in the native languages of other countries and people.

For a CRM system to be of any use to intelligence agencies it would need to work in a variety of languages and be open to users in various countries worldwide, he said. Steele said he doubts CRM could handle multiple languages simultaneously in real time.

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