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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)

Azmi said that "in terms of having a lot of money, we were just coming out of 9/11, and at that time there was a lot of pressure on the FBI to develop capabilities for storing information and actually, for lack of better words, connecting the dots. If SAIC took advantage of that, I would say shame on them."

Mueller has also criticized SAIC, telling Congress that the software it produced "was not what it should be in order to make it the effective tool for the FBI, and it requires us now to go a different route."

One FBI manager estimated that the scope of the Trilogy project as a whole expanded by 80 percent since it began, according to a February 2005 report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine.

SAIC has consistently said that it was trying to meet the FBI's needs but that its efforts were undermined by the bureau's chronic indecision. Executive Vice President Arnold Punaro submitted testimony to Congress in February 2005 citing 19 government personnel changes in three years that kept the program's direction in flux.

FBI officials, he said, took a "trial and error, 'we will know it when we see it' approach to development." Punaro said the company warned bureau officials that such a method would not work, but he acknowledged that SAIC did not do enough to get the FBI's attention.

"We clearly failed to get the cumulative effect of these changes across to the FBI consumer," he said.

Punaro also faulted Aerospace, saying that its study was based on an earlier version of VCF software and that the firm "did not bring a sufficient understanding of the uniqueness, complexity and scope of the FBI undertaking to evaluate our product."

Starting Over, Again

By 2004, even as the news grew worse behind the scenes, FBI officials struggled to put an optimistic spin on their software upgrade.

In March, testifying before a House subcommittee, Mueller said that the FBI had experienced "a delay with the contractor" but that the problem had been "righted." He said he expected that "the last piece of Virtual Case File would be in by this summer."

Two months later, Azmi -- who had been named the bureau's chief information officer -- pushed back the estimate further, predicting that SAIC would deliver the product in December.

But the problems continued to mount. The FBI and SAIC feuded over change orders, system requirements and other issues, according to an investigative report later prepared for the House Appropriations Committee. The FBI also went ahead with a $17 million testing program for the system, one of many missed opportunities to cut its losses, according to the House report.

Azmi defends the attempt to save VCF and calls the decision to abandon it in early 2005 "probably the toughest" of his career.

The decision to kill VCF meant that the FBI's 30,000-plus employees, including more than 12,000 special agents, had to continue to rely on an "obsolete" information system that put them at "a severe disadvantage in performing their duties," according to the report by Fine, of the Justice Department.

"The urgent need within the FBI to create, organize, share and analyze investigative leads and case files on an ongoing basis remains unmet," Fine's office concluded.

Maureen Baginski, the FBI's former executive assistant director of intelligence, said the lack of a modern case-management system could hurt the bureau when time is of the essence. Agents and analysts need the new system, she said, to quickly make connections across cases -- especially when they are tackling complex challenges such as unraveling a terrorist plot.

Last year, FBI officials announced a replacement for VCF, named Sentinel, that is projected to cost $425 million and will not be fully operational until 2009. A temporary overlay version of the software, however, is planned for launch next year.

The project's main contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp., will be paid $305 million and will be required to meet benchmarks as the project proceeds. FBI officials say Sentinel has survived three review sessions and is on budget and on schedule.

SAIC is not involved. FBI officials say they are awaiting an audit by a federal contracting agency before deciding whether to attempt to recoup costs from the company.

In a follow-up to its reviews, Fine's office warned in March that the FBI is at risk of repeating its mistakes with Sentinel because of management turnover and weak financial controls. But Azmi and other FBI officials say Sentinel is designed to be everything VCF was not, with specific requirements, regular milestones and aggressive oversight.

Randolph Hite, who is reviewing the program for the Government Accountability Office, said: "When you do a program like this, you need to apply a level of rigor and discipline that's very high. That wasn't inherent in VCF. My sense is that it is inherent in Sentinel."

But no one really knows how much longer the bureau can afford to wait.

"We had information that could have stopped 9/11," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It was sitting there and was not acted upon. . . . I haven't seen them correct the problems. . . . We might be in the 22nd century before we get the 21st-century technology."

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