$356 Million Later, the Justice Department's Wireless Network Still Sucks

After 9/11, three federal law enforcement agencies planned a massive project to replace a mishmash of aging and obsolete radios used by thousands of federal agents. A decade and $356 million later, the program has made "minimal progress" and the Department of Homeland Security, one of the project's key partners, wants little to do with it.

That's all according to an audit by the Justice Department's inspector general, following interviews with officials from the FBI to DHS and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, among others. The DOJ's investigators found the project - dubbed the Integrated Wireless Network - to be at "high risk for failure" because of shifting priorities, costly delays and frequent changes in leadership at top DOJ posts. Likewise, federal budget cuts could put the program on the chopping block.

The audit warns: "As a result, law enforcement and emergency personnel will continue to use inadequate, incompatible, and outdated equipment, resulting in slower operation response times and potentially jeopardizing the lives of law enforcement and emergency personnel and the people they have sworn to protect."

The project began in the late 1990s and saw increased attention following 9/11. The origin? Find a way to replace the Justice Department's creaky, mismatched radio network. Among a number of headaches, the radios operate on a few limited and disconnected frequencies. According to the audit, the Drug Enforcement Administration's radios operate primarily on UHF frequencies assigned to the agency back in 1972, while the rest of the department operates mostly on VHF. This segmented radio network doesn't block communication completely, but it means agents must haul multiple radios when working together to communicate across the different wavelengths.

This incompatible system (or systems) can also easily clog up when on shared channels during emergencies - such as terrorist attacks like 9/11. Without a way to organize or prioritize which messages go where and to whom, emergency crews were quickly overwhelmed with calls for help. And having to share the airwaves with millions of cell phones can turn a rescue operation into a logistical nightmare.

Another problem is that land radios are vulnerable to hack attacks. Encrypted communications have to be regularly "re-keyed." But unlike modern encrypted radios, classic 1970s-era radios have to be re-keyed manually, which sucks up time and can grind an operation to a halt. If not, your mission-sensitive information might get listened-in by narcos.

The Integrated Wireless Radio was supposed to solve these problems. Radio frequencies would be organized and assigned automatically, eliminating the need for manual re-keying. The new radio system would also bring the agencies up to speed with federal encryption guidelines. And with the creation of the DHS, the radios would act as the equipment to bring state and local law enforcement and other federal agencies into line.

However, according to the audit report, that concept "bears little resemblance to the current IWN design and approach" as "competing priorities and requirements among federal agencies proved impossible to overcome."

Which led to more delays. And with more delays, the older radios just got older. Eventually, according to the audit, DHS decided to go solo. Likewise, the Treasury Department "has no voice" in the project's management, and will not participate in future planning.

To be fair, it's not entirely the agency's fault. The project was hampered by inadequate funding from Congress. And now with looming budget cuts, it could be that the project was really doomed from the start.

"Yet, the need for interoperability that IWN could provide was cited by the [Government Accountability Office] and 9/11 Commission as a critical need for emergency and law enforcement personnel," the audit says. But big, conceptually simple radio projects are easier than they look. You can ask the Army about that.

Photo: General Dynamics

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