The debut of the federal government's computerized health insurance exchanges has been a fiasco of epic scale, so much so that the president is encouraging enrollment by phone. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the website, healthcare.gov, with more money coming and no guarantee it'll get much better.
Interviews with some of those who built the website, and reviews of the technical specifications, “found a mind-numbingly complex system put together by harried programmers,” The Associated Press reported. President Barack Obama is promising a “tech surge” involving outside help to get things turned around.
In short, healthcare.gov has been a picture of government bungling. But that doesn't mean the feds can't handle other complicated, highly technical challenges. A recent arrest by the FBI provides an example.
Federal prosecutors believe Ross Ulbricht, 29, of San Francisco, was the architect of a black market website called Silk Road. USA Today called it “the cyber-underworld's largest black market, with $1.2 billion in sales and nearly a million customers.” Available on the site: guns, drugs, fake documents including passports and driver's licenses — even forgers and hit men.
The site's network used multiple servers hidden around the world, meant to shield Ulbricht and ensure privacy for users. But the federal government was familiar with the network — indeed the U.S. Naval Research lab developed the concept behind it. The feds began investigating Silk Road in 2011 and shut it down Oct. 1 when Ulbricht was arrested. In between came thousands of hours of cyber-sleuthing and undercover work that ultimately resulted in the FBI locating and compromising the servers.
Exactly how the agency did that isn't known. The FBI isn't saying. But the fact the agency was able to pull it off, efficiently and effectively, is worthy of a salute. It's also proof that, despite emanations from Washington, there are many bright and extremely capable people in government.