The FBI is "significantly hampered" in its ability to prevent terrorism and combat other serious crimes because of its continued failure to replace antiquated and inefficient computer systems, the Justice Department's chief watchdog said yesterday.
A report by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine also found that poor planning and botched management were the main reasons that the FBI may have to scrap a $170 million computer upgrade that has not performed up to standards.
The problems raise "national security implications," Fine wrote, because FBI agents and analysts are still unable to adequately share and search for information.
"The FBI's operations remain significantly hampered due to the poor functionality and lack of information-sharing capabilities of its current [information technology] systems," the report said.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee yesterday that he is "frustrated and disappointed" by the delays but disagrees with Fine's conclusion that the problems are hampering the ability of FBI agents to do their jobs.
Although a new computerized case-file system "would allow us to do our jobs more efficiently," Mueller said, its absence "does not prevent us from fulfilling our counterterrorism, intelligence and law enforcement missions."
The findings by Fine's office represent the latest blow to the FBI's foundering attempts to implement Trilogy, a three-pronged $581 million effort to upgrade outdated and cumbersome computer systems.
Although the FBI has built a new network and purchased thousands of new high-speed personal computers for agents, it has botched attempts to build a Virtual Case File system that would allow agents to handle nearly all documents electronically. The FBI said last month that the latest version of the software, designed by Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), is already outdated and is likely to be abandoned before it is launched.
Numerous outside experts and panels, including the independent commission that studied the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have criticized the bureau's filing and records systems as inefficient and have found that the shortcomings may have contributed to the FBI's inability to detect the al Qaeda hijacking plot.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said at yesterday's Senate hearing that the FBI's technology-improvement efforts have been plagued by "escalating costs, imprecise planning, mismanagement, implementation concerns and delays." He assailed the agency for not being more forthcoming with Congress about the problems.
Many FBI agents, Leahy said, have dubbed the Trilogy program the "Tragedy project."
"This has been an outrageously expensive on-the-job training program," Leahy said. "Congress paid for something to be built, not for learning about what to build through trial and error."
SAIC officials have strongly defended the company's role in the development of the case-file software, and they complained about frequent FBI design changes and management turnover. Fine's investigation confirmed many of those complaints, finding that "the main responsibility for the problems with Trilogy rests with the FBI."
Among other problems, Fine said, were poorly defined and changing design requirements, lack of management oversight, and rapid turnover in the FBI's technology executive ranks.
Leahy noted that the contract for the Virtual Case File system was changed 36 times.
Mueller said that although he takes ultimate responsibility for the software blunder, the project contractor also "bears some responsibility." Mueller estimated that the unusable software will result in an actual loss of $104 million, because the rest of the money either is unspent or has been spent on items that can be used elsewhere.