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The FBI's Upgrade That Wasn't

While accepting some blame for the system's failure, FBI Director Robert Mueller said the software
While accepting some blame for the system's failure, FBI Director Robert Mueller said the software "was not what it should be." (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

SAIC declined three requests for comment. The company told Congress last year that it tried to warn the FBI that its "trial and error" approach to the project would not work, but it said it may not have been forceful enough with the bureau.

Whoever is at fault, five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and more than $600 million later, agents still rely largely on the paper reports and file cabinets used since federal agents began chasing gangsters in the 1920s.

1980s Technology

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI had developed a plan, Trilogy, to address its chronic technology problems. The program was made up of three main components: a new computer network, thousands of new personal computer stations and, at its heart, the software system that would come to be known as VCF.

The FBI wanted its agents to work in a largely paperless environment, able to search files, pull up photos and scan for information at their own PCs. The old system was based on fusty mainframe technology, with a text-only "green screen" that had to be searched by keywords and could not store or display graphics, photos or scanned copies of reports.

What's more, most employees had no PCs. They relied instead on shared computers for access to the Internet and e-mail. A type of memo called an electronic communication had to be printed out on paper and signed by a supervisor before it was sent. Uploading a single document took 12 steps.

The setup was so cumbersome that many agents stopped using it, preferring to rely on paper and secretaries. Technologically, the FBI was trapped in the 1980s, if not earlier.

"Getting information into or out of the system is a challenge," said Greg Gandolfo, who spent most of his 18-year FBI career investigating financial crimes and public corruption cases in Chicago, Little Rock and Los Angeles. "It's not like 'Here it is, click' and it's in there. It takes a whole series of steps and screens to go through."

Gandolfo, who now heads a unit at FBI headquarters that fields computer complaints, said the biggest drawback is the amount of time it takes to handle paperwork and input data. "From the case agent's point of view, you want to be freed up to do the casework, to do the investigations, to do the intelligence," he said.

At the start, the software project had relatively modest goals -- and much lower costs. When SAIC beat out four competitors to win the contract in June 2001, the company said it would be earning $14 million in the first year of a three-year deal to update the FBI's case-management system.

For SAIC, the contract was relatively minor. The firm, owned by 40,000 employee shareholders, is one of the nation's largest government contractors. The 2001 attacks were a boon to its fortunes, helping to boost its annual revenue, now more than $7 billion.

At the FBI, the impact of the attacks was equally significant but certainly less auspicious. As revelations emerged that the bureau had missed clues that could have revealed the plot, its image suffered. Its long-outdated information technology systems drew particular scrutiny.

"Prior to 9/11, the FBI did not have an adequate ability to know what it knew," a report by the staff of the Sept. 11 commission concluded. "The FBI's primary information management system, designed using 1980s technology already obsolete when installed in 1995, limited the Bureau's ability to share its information internally and externally."

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