Feature: A sorry state

The U.S. Department of State’s IT infrastructure is so antiquated and cumbersome that some fear it is dangerously inadequate for the task of representing U.S. interests abroad. Diplomats who send e-mail inside one embassy building have to wait for the correspondence to make a slow trip to Washington, D.C., and back, and those at distant embassies have no good way of sharing information about, say, the spread of disease or plans for dealing with a bombing. The network carrying classified information is obsolete, and many employees don’t even have Internet access on their desktop.

Long before Sept. 11, a congressional panel studying the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa concluded that communication among the State Department’s 260 posts around the world was inefficient for dealing with and preventing terrorist attacks. But in spite of congressional criticism and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s push for a major IT overhaul when he took office, much of the multimillion-dollar modernization remains to be completed.

Yet, at a time when the country is fighting a shadowy enemy and relying on diplomacy to keep a fragile coalition from collapsing, the need for IT excellence couldn’t be more urgent.

The department has three IT priorities: Internet access for every desktop, new connectivity for classified information and rollout of an information-sharing system for 40 governmental agencies that operate overseas. Sept. 11 has given these plans a jolt.

“We’re trying to accelerate [the modernization], but once it’s accelerated there’s only so much you can do,” says State Department CIO Fernando Burbano. The State Department’s 2002 budget includes US$217 million for modernization, passed by Congress and signed into law in late November 2001. “You see more support for the government, not just for us. There’s increased support for funds directly related to the war,” Burbano adds.

The question is, Will the infusion from taxpayers make a difference at this notoriously bureaucratic agency?

Litany of Woes

Historically, the department has never had much pull up on Capitol Hill. “The State Department is held in very low esteem by almost everyone in town,” according to James Lindsay, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. The department’s focus, for the most part, is on foreign governments and not the people who count with legislators: voters.

It doesn’t help that the department is widely perceived as an impenetrable bureaucracy, set in its analog ways. “The Department of State has never been oriented towards information technology,” says Frank Carlucci, who was a foreign service officer from 1956 to 1980 before becoming secretary of defense and national security adviser under President Reagan. In February 2001, Carlucci led an independent task force that used words like obsolete, cumbersome and dilapidated to describe the State Department’s general infrastructure, which includes the information infrastructure.

Employees share Internet connections on computers not hooked up to the network. All the department’s official electronic correspondence passes through a cable system, a World War I relic that delivers 28.5 million ASCII telegrams worldwide each year. Although telegrams are now delivered through an e-mail interface, users say it’s difficult to mark them for delivery and receipt. An overtaxed communications line that connects embassies to headquarters is often down. Embassies house offices for many other government agencies, but when a State employee based overseas sends an e-mail to, say, a Defense Department employee whose office is 50 feet away, the e-mail is routed through Washington.

Communication between citizens and State Depart-ment officials can be even more vexing. E-mail access at some overseas posts is so sporadic that foreign governments and citizens often can contact Washington more easily than they can get through to people at the local American embassy. For example, this past summer the Web site for the embassy in Bogot