The FBI said yesterday that a nearly $170 million computer system intended to help agents share data about terrorist threats and other criminal cases is seriously deficient and will be largely abandoned before it is launched.
The software, known as Virtual Case File, was supposed to provide a modern database for storing and indexing all case information and entries by agents, enabling them to share files electronically and search easily for links between cases that might not otherwise seem connected.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, right, conferred with Sept. 11 panelist Jamie S. Gorelick last year. "There were problems we did not anticipate," he said about the new computer software yesterday.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
Such capability might have enabled agents to more closely link men who later turned out to be involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to intelligence reviews conducted after the terrorist strikes.
But the FBI has concluded that the system, the latest version of which was provided by Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego last month, is already outdated. New contractors are examining whether any portions of the system can be salvaged, and are determining how much it will cost to complete the project, the FBI said.
"I am frustrated," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said when asked about the software at a news conference in Birmingham, according to Reuters news service. "There were problems we did not anticipate."
Jamie S. Gorelick, a member of the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, called the development "a tremendous setback." She said the bureau "cannot function effectively if it does not have a way to effectively get its own information."
She said that Mueller wants a good computer system and had testified to the commission that it was within reach.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement that "the likely possibility of the FBI scrapping the system is disappointing," and "I hope we haven't just been pouring money down a rat hole at taxpayers' expense."
The FBI's decision, first reported yesterday by the Los Angeles Times, is the latest in a string of setbacks and embarrassments involving archaic computer technology that has long plagued the bureau. For years, agents did not have high-speed Internet connections or a robust e-mail system.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency embarked on a $600 million modernization program dubbed Trilogy, much of which has been put in place. A secure, high-speed network was deployed, and more than 30,000 new desktop computers were issued to agents.
But an electronic database would enable quick searchability and the sharing of everything in the case files. The independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks deemed such a system vital.
Questions began to be raised about the Virtual Case File system early last year, when a bipartisan group of senior senators on the Judiciary Committee asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the program, an inquiry that is ongoing. Originally, the Virtual Case File initiative was scheduled to be completed in late 2003.
Last spring, an independent research report concluded that the system's design would not assist anti-terrorism investigations. The system "is not now and unlikely to be an adequate tool . . . because [it] was designed with criminal investigation requirements in mind," according to the report by the National Research Council, which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences.
In June, the FBI said the project had been delayed and that it was renegotiating its contract with Science Applications. But in an FBI document circulated yesterday, the bureau said it had determined then that the system would not meet its needs.