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US

FBI opens high-tech crisis center

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In this story:

November 20, 1998
Web posted at: 2:27 p.m. EST (1927 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As it entered its 91st year with new duties that extend around the world, the FBI on Friday opened a high-tech, $20 million operations center nearly the size of a football field and capable of handling up to five crises at once.

The new Strategic Information and Operations Center -- called "sigh-ock" after its initials -- covers 40,000 square feet on the fifth floor of FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is 10 times bigger than its two-decade-old predecessor that could, with difficulty, handle two crises simultaneously.

FBI officials said the facility can accommodate up to 450 staff during major emergencies.

Top-secret facility

The top-secret facility with no windows to the street, or even any outside walls, was dedicated by former President George Bush Friday.

Its opening coincided with the agency's celebration of its 90th birthday.

The center's purpose is to keep the FBI updated on any crisis through sophisticated computers and communications equipment, the officials said. When a crisis begins, the center alerts top FBI managers and officials from other U.S. government agencies.

The center will also be used for special events, such as a presidential inauguration or when the Olympics are held in the United States, the officials said.

Bureau officials became convinced the old SIOC was outmoded in the summer of 1996 when they tried to manage investigations of the Olympic bombing in Atlanta, the explosion of TWA 800 and the Khobar Towers truck-bombing in Saudi Arabia at the same time.

"There weren't enough rooms or enough telephones," FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said. "We had people working at desks in the hallway outside and reading top-secret material in the vending area across the hall."

Counterterrorism fastest-growing sector

Introducing the new SIOC to reporters for a one-time-only tour, Freeh said it was emblematic of the bureau's expanded responsibilities and technology.

He noted that the bureau's fastest-growing component, its Counterterrorism Center, is arrayed in the offices around the SIOC -- as is its violent crime unit, which handles domestic attacks such as the Oklahoma City bombing or hijackings.

Much of the counterterrorism work now extends overseas, to Saudi Arabia where U.S. servicemen have been killed in two bombings and East Africa where two U.S. embassies were bombed, for example.

In the last five years, Freeh said, the FBI has nearly doubled its legal attaches working abroad -- to 32 cities now. Eight more are to open soon -- in Almaty, Kazakhstan; Ankara, Turkey; Brasilia, Brazil; Copenhagen, Denmark; Prague, Czech Republic; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; Singapore and Seoul, South Korea.

The computers at desks throughout the center and the 5-by-15-foot video screens on the walls of almost all of the 35 rooms can display not only U.S. television broadcasts but also TV channels from other countries.

Around-the-clock global monitoring

The FBI's new National Infrastructure Protection Center, tasked to prevent and respond to attacks on government or private computer systems that keep America running, will have three representatives on each of the 10-member watch teams that staff the center at all times.

Also present around the clock: a representative of the National Security Agency's Cryptologic Security Group to provide information from the government's worldwide electronic eavesdropping.

Ron Wilcox, deputy chief of the SIOC, said the compartmentalized areas of the center would allow bureau agents "to work in one room with District of Columbia police on a local kidnapping while another room works on a terrorist bombing with top-secret data."

Each work station can receive data from three sets of phone and computer links, with the information divided into three categories: unclassified, secret and top-secret.

While the center will draw information from around the world, no data will leave without permission. The center is shielded to prevent outside detection of electronic emissions, so cell phones do not work inside it.

In Operations Group D and G, the largest room -- with the capacity for 118 people -- printers are equipped with yard-wide rolls of paper to accommodate entire city maps.

Rather than increasing the burden on field agents to report to Washington, Wilcox said the new center should reduce such demands, because "we will offer one-stop shopping for headquarters. Field agents can report to us, and we will be responsible for making sure everybody is alerted who should be."

Asked if the center was effectively a 911 number for agents in the field, Steve McMullen, a supervisory emergency action specialist, replied, "It will probably become that."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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