A thumbnail photo of Osama bin Laden leered out from a large, flat-panel screen at the Vienna headquarters of FMS Advanced Systems Group during a recent product demonstration. Radiating out from the picture were gray lines connecting it to dozens of other photos of suspected terrorists.
"All right," said Scott Ellis, FMS vice president in charge of product development. "Now let's see which associates he has in common with, say, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi."
With a few mouse clicks, Ellis caused another photo to appear — one of al-Zarqawi, surrounded by its own circle of terror suspects. More lines bridged the gap between bin Laden and al-Zarqawi, connected to the suspects both men knew.
Ellis was using FMS' Sentinel Visualizer software and a simulated version of an al Qaeda database. But, he said, if someone in intelligence were looking at real data, they could easily see which members of the group are connected. They could also find out how lesser related parties might contact someone like bin Laden.
"It's a lot easier than just looking at a big spreadsheet," he said.
FMS officials say they have been selling a $250,000 "executive" version of the Visualizer, which requires professional installation and training, to customers in the federal government.
"It was more heavyweight," FMS President Luke Chung said during a phone interview. "It had to be installed with some degree of customization."
But the newest version of the Visualizer is aimed at a different customer base, Chung said. Slimmer, available on a single disc for easy installation and priced at between $2,500 and $3,500, the new Sentinel Visualizer was designed for state and local law enforcement, intelligence- and security-related firms and private companies in industries such as the pharmaceutical sector.
"We're branching out of our existing customer base in the intelligence arena," Chung said. "When we say commercial, though, it's not necessarily non-government, just non [intelligence community]."
Private businesses could use the Sentinel Visualizer to track papers, files and their authors, he said.
Chung said FMS has been in business for 21 years, primarily with a commercial customer base. The Sentinel line was started after Sept. 11, 2001, bringing the company into the intelligence community, he said.
The company said it could not disclose what agencies use its software, although it said the Department of Homeland Security is not one of them. In-Q-Tel, a not-for-profit company set up in 1999 to help the CIA and others in the intelligence community identify and acquire new technology, has invested in FMS.
Chung said the new Sentinel Visualizer is intended as a way to bring the program back to FMS' existing consumer base.
The Sentinel Visualizer doesn't search for data — the user has to provide it, in the form of spreadsheets or information input directly. It creates a customizable way for viewing data, geared primarily to show how elements of it are connected.
During his demonstration, Ellis showed how anything could be input as an entity within the Sentinel Visualizer — people, places, events.
"We try not to tell you 'this is how you use it,'" he said.
The user can mark each entity with a variety of detailed information. A criminal on the FBI's Most Wanted List, for example, could have the crimes he's committed, locations he's visited or prisons he's been sentenced to. The program can then find other people who share those common traits.
Entities can also be modified to emphasize connections to other entities. For example, a suspect's brother would be weighed more heavily than someone he met only a few times. Sentinel Visualizer can chart the importance of different relationships.
"The idea is to better reflect the data you have and the quality of data you have," Ellis said.
Toggling through screens, Ellis showed that the Sentinel Visualizer allows for timeline and map displays, showing not only which terrorists knew each other, but where they were at any given time.
For one 30-minute demo, the experience is a bit overwhelming. But Ellis said the program was designed to be easy to learn and use.
"We don't want people to get hung up on the software," he said. "They have a job to do."
Those last two sentences sum it up: "We don't want people to get hung up on the software," he said. "They have a job to do."
This software means absolutely nothing if your key government agencies are riddled with agents of foreign powers and paralyzed by the tentacles of corruption and organized crime; it means nothing if there is not the political will to follow the trail wherever it leads, and clean out the rats' nest that Washington has become.
Speaking of which, I'm fixing to connect a few dots myself -- and you won't want to miss it.