The FBI celebrated its 90th anniversary yesterday by unveiling a $20 million operations center equipped to handle five major crises at once, a fitting symbol of the bureau's broad expansion since President Theodore Roosevelt launched it in 1908 as well as the global challenges it now faces.
The new Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC) covers 40,000 square feet on the fifth floor of FBI headquarters in Washington, 10 times the size of the old center. It has 35 rooms, 184 computers and the capacity to segregate secret and top secret information onto separate fiber optic networks. Officials said they will never again have the space problems they battled in 1996, when supervisors dealing with the TWA Flight 800 disaster, the Olympics bombing and the Khobar Towers explosion in Saudi Arabia had to set up desks in hallways.
"The old SIOC was cramped and crowded," said Ron Wilcox, who will serve as the center's deputy chief after overseeing the yearlong construction process. "We hope we never have multiple crises at one time, but now we're prepared to handle it if it happens."
Former president George Bush cut the ribbon for the center yesterday, after a Thursday tour for reporters who may never be admitted again. Nestled in the middle of the monolithic J. Edgar Hoover Building, the center is surrounded by the FBI units that will rely on it most, the ones dealing with counterterrorism, computer crimes and violent crimes.
"There's a good feeling you get walking through that center," Bush said during his speech at the anniversary celebration in Constitution Hall. "It shows that we have serious, forward-looking people leading this bureau."
The center will be run day to day by 10-member watch teams, but it can seat as many as 450 in emergencies. Aside from an elegant maple-paneled executive briefing room, the center's dominant design motif is gray: the walls, the carpets and the modular furniture. There are plenty of large video screens, phone consoles, fax machines and digital clocks, but there are no windows to the street.
The major assets of the new SIOC are its size, technological capacity and ability to face international crises. In that sense it is emblematic of the changes made in recent years by the FBI. The bureau started with a few dozen employees in Washington 90 years ago; now it has 29,000, including 11,700 special agents, in all 50 states and 32 foreign countries.
FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said in a briefing at the center that high-tech competence is among the bureau's greatest challenges. But Freeh emphasized that as the FBI wades into the realms of cybercrime, international terrorism and DNA analysis, it will have to maintain the core values expressed in its longstanding motto: Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity. Bush, Attorney General Janet Reno, a retired agent and a new agent all repeated the point yesterday in their anniversary speeches.
"The FBI has become part of the heart, soul and fabric of America," said Reno, who has been embroiled in a public spat with Freeh over the Justice Department's campaign finance investigations but will soon be sworn in as the bureau's 20th honorary special agent. "There is no substitute for good old-fashioned detective work, and the FBI is the best." CAPTION: Technicians sit at computers in the new FBI operations center, equipped to handle five crises at once. ec