IT hitch stopped terrorist warning getting through

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IT hitch stopped terrorist warning getting through

Bill Goodwin
The Fortress system was slower than its paper-based predecessor and vital threat messages were delayed

Technical hitches with a Foreign Office computer system led to British embassies missing vital intelligence warnings on terrorist threats a year before the 11 September attacks, a secret Foreign Office memo has revealed.

The memo, from an official at the Government's counter-terrorism policy department to David Manning, a senior foreign policy adviser, reveals that the computer system used to distribute intelligence reports was significantly slower than the paper system it replaced.

The Fortress system, implemented in 1999, was meant to speed up access to intelligence material and to make it easier to send intelligence reports around Whitehall. But according to the confidential telegram, posted anonymously on the Internet, technical problems meant that important intelligence alerts failed to arrive to UK embassies on time, provoking consternation among British ambassadors.

The memo refers to a mishandled warning relating to a threat from Osama Bin Laden in Brussels a year before the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York.

"The system is less reliable and often slower than paper distribution: there have been a number of occasions when immediate threat intelligence arrived too late or did not arrive at all because of technical hitches. Vital threat telegrams to our missions overseas have been delayed as a result," the memo warns.

Further problems were caused by the system's inability to print out reports. Officials working in Whitehall's counter-terrorism policy department (CTPD) could not have copies of vital intelligence reports with them at discussions with other government departments.

"The software is not in the least user-friendly, which means we waste hours every week trying to access reports. CTPD receives almost 40 reports a day. We estimate that it takes us five times as long to process reports on Fortress than on paper," the memo complained.

"Fortress is a pig," one disgruntled civil servant commented in another confidential memo posted on the Internet.

Although government officials were promised that the problems would be addressed, 12 months after Fortress' implementation staff were calling for a return to the old paper-based system. Fortress had proved to be slower, less reliable, less practical and more costly, the memo claimed.

The counter-terrorism policy department was also concerned that its staff had to work with three different terminals and five different retrieval packages, including Fortress, Firecrest, Aramis, and BBC Media, while organisations such as the Secret Intelligence Service have had a single intelligence system for years.

The duplication of systems in the department mean that there was a danger that work could "fall through the gaps", the memo claimed.

Despite the core problems of Fortress being documented in departmental minutes, among the Fortress User Group and during meetings with a succession of IT consultants the problems had not been addressed by the time the memo was sent in September 2000.

The Foreign Office, which refused to comment on the authenticity of the documents, conceded this week that Fortress did have problems which were caused by its poor specification.

The system was now working, it said. "We have had a major programme of investment. Fortress suffered from a number of problems shortly after installation in 1999. These were addressed by a major programme of investment in 2000. The improvement kicked-in in 2001 and the system is working satisfactorily," said a spokesman.

Foreign Office officials are conducting a leak inquiry.

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