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A Failing Upgrade for the FBI

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; 10:08 AM

This is not a way to endear yourself to taxpayers or critics: The Federal Bureau of Investigation may have to nix a $170 million revamp of its outdated computer systems, an upgrade that was designed to boost information-sharing capabilities and cobble together a clearer picture of the terrorism threat.

The likely collapse of the "Virtual Case File" project, part of a $500 million IT upgrade effort at the FBI, was detailed by a number of media outlets today and first reported yesterday by the Los Angeles Times. It's a major blow for the agency, which has been struggling to redeem its image since Sept. 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks, the FBI was portrayed as a technology dinosaur, with reports of agents working without e-mail access and in many cases, without computers.

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The development is a "train wreck in slow motion, at a cost of $170 million to American taxpayers and unknown cost to public safety," Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Wall Street Journal. The all-but-doomed program, which has relied on expensive customized software, "has been riddled with technical and planning problems, FBI officials said on Thursday," the New York Times wrote today, also noting financial problems and "perhaps most critically, a resistance among some veteran agents who favor pens and pads over computers." The paper said the bureau has paid $2 million to a research firm to study the glitches and try to salvage the program. Aerospace Corp. has been hired "to look into how much of the software can be salvaged and which additional programs are needed, a government official said," the Journal reported today.

"The development is a major setback for the FBI in a decade-long struggle to escape a paper-driven culture and replace antiquated computer systems that have hobbled counterterrorism and criminal investigations. Robert S. Mueller III, the bureau's director, along with members of the Sept. 11 commission and other national security experts, have said the success of that effort is critical to domestic security," the New York Times said.
The Wall Street Journal: FBI May Scrap System Upgrade for Sharing Files (Subscription required)
The New York Times: FBI May Scrap Vital Overhaul of Its Computer System (Registration required)

Lee H. Hamilton, vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission -- which had pinpointed an IT overhaul at the bureau as a priority after the attacks -- didn't mince words. "The FBI cannot share information and manage their cases effectively without a top-flight computer system, and we on the commission got assurances again and again from the FBI that they were getting on top of this problem. It's very, very disappointing to see that they're not." More admonishment from another commission member: "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," The Washington Post wrote, reporting that the computer system "will be largely abandoned before it is launched."
The Washington Post: FBI Rejects Its New Case File Software (Registration required)

It looks like more taxpayer money will be spent on the bureau's revamping plan. "A top FBI official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity in a background briefing, said the bureau 'presumably' would ask Congress for millions of dollars more to seek bids from companies to develop another automated information-sharing system," USA Today reported.
USA Today: FBI Expects to Dump Information-Sharing Software

Darts for Contractor

The revelation that the computer overhaul may be dead in the water is not good news for San Diego-based SAIC, which got the contract in 2001. The Times explained more: "The FBI's 'virtual case file' system, the last in a three-part computer upgrade totaling more than half a billion dollars, has proved the most difficult. The system was designed to give the bureau's nearly 12,000 agents around the country instant access to FBI databases, allowing speedier investigations and better integration of information both within the bureau and with other intelligence agencies that must coordinate national security matters. But the project is over budget and behind schedule, and FBI officials acknowledged on Thursday that they were uncertain whether it would ever be completed. Only about 10 percent of the project ... is now in use, officials said." The bureau could lose $130 million of the $170 million it paid SAIC if the program ends, the Journal reported.

The Post explained the VCF software was envisioned to enable agents "to share files electronically and search easily for links between cases that might not otherwise seem connected. 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."

SAIC is playing it cool -- a company spokesman said it "had met its contract requirements with the FBI" -- but don't expect this to be the last word. "The company plans to await the findings of an independent assessment of the problems, which the FBI commissioned for $2 million, before commenting further," the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
The San Diego Union-Tribune: SD-Made Key Part Could Get Scrapped

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times article said SAIC turned in a VCF prototype. "The stripped-down prototype will be running for three months. The bureau plans to then 'shut it down, take all the lessons learned and incorporate them in a future case management system,' a person familiar with the bureau's plans said. Science Applications will apparently be no part of that future: Its contract expires at the end of March, and there were no plans to renew it, sources said."

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