By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
A major effort to upgrade intelligence computers that hold the government's master list of terrorist identities is embroiled in controversy about the project's management and the work of contractors hired for the job, documents and interviews show.
The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, serves as the central repository of information about more than 400,000 suspected terrorists around the world. Operating at the National Counterterrorism Center, TIDE and other systems each day deliver files of information to watch-list programs that screen people traveling into the United States, or they make data available online to intelligence analysts across the government.
Authorities said TIDE has revolutionized many national security tasks. But because it was built quickly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, it is limited and lacks many features needed by the intelligence community, documents show. Those limitations in TIDE and related systems hamper the ability of intelligence analysts to discover patterns and make connections among the growing pools of data they amass from around the world. TIDE also has suffered periodic outages of up to two hours, according to interviews with government officials and contractors involved with the project.
In 2006, authorities quietly launched Railhead, a project worth as much as $500 million over five years, to improve TIDE and eventually replace it and some related systems with technology that would significantly expand their capabilities.
After more than a year and about $100 million, the Railhead project has become the focus of criticism from some counterterrorism analysts and contractors, who have said it does not provide the search capabilities they expected and appears to be behind schedule. One lawmaker has taken up those questions and publicly asked for an investigation by the inspector general of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, saying his congressional staff has information from a contractor whistle-blower that shows the project is on the "brink of collapse," possibly threatening national security.
Officials at the counterterrorism center said in interviews that the allegations are untrue and irresponsible. They acknowledged that Railhead has suffered from some "speed bumps" common to large technology projects, including inadequate communication about what features analysts and other users need. They said that dozens of contract employees had been let go this summer, but that it was done to spend funds more wisely and on more important tasks.
The officials said the project is on track. A pilot project offering improved access and a wider array of features for TIDE Online -- the system that allows analysts to draw information from TIDE -- will be launched in coming weeks. "Have we had some hurdles? Of course we have," said Vicki Jo McBee, who took over as chief of the project in July.
"We are making progress," she said. "The users are going to be more than satisfied."
The questions about Railhead underscore growing apprehension about contract management in the intelligence community, which has spent tens of billions of dollars in the war on terror in recent years with an insufficient procurement workforce and little public oversight, according to documents and interviews.
Several unclassified reviews of intelligence spending in the past few years have said the shortage of contracting expertise in the classified world is acute.
The allegations of problems also highlight the government's persistent difficulties in conceiving and building giant computer systems, even for national security projects.
The Railhead project relies on a controversial approach to contracting that gives great authority to a "lead systems integrator" -- in this case, Boeing -- that serves in essence as a management proxy for the government. Other projects relying on lead systems integrators, such as the Coast Guard's Deepwater project, have repeatedly overshot deadlines and costs. The Department of Defense appropriations bill for 2008 sharply restricted the use of lead systems integrators because of such problems.
TIDE and related systems have become crucial tools in the war on terror. TIDE is the central "base for all-source information on international terrorist identities for the U.S. Government," according to documents from a congressional briefing in April. One system linked to TIDE, NCTC Online, has more than 5,500 users in more than 40 federal organizations and agencies.
But counterterrorism officials have made clear that TIDE and related systems need to be upgraded. Documents used in an April briefing of staff members on Capitol Hill show that the systems are poorly integrated, and difficult and costly to upgrade. "Those Information Technology capabilities, as good as they are, were not designed for the scale, robustness or integrated performance required by the NCTC mission," the briefing documents said.
The Railhead project is set up so that the government can hire contractors to upgrade the system in increments, leading to an "integrated and accessible" system that would improve the discovery of information for analysts and make access far easier.
Dozens of documents obtained by The Washington Post show that Boeing and SRI International, one of the primary contractors, and dozens of other subcontractors have sometimes struggled to fulfill a mission that from the outset was not clearly defined.
Officials at Boeing and SRI declined to answer questions.
Boeing and SRI have sometimes not cooperated, the documents show. Last summer, during the transition to Railhead from a previous contracting program, the TIDE system was operated by a sharply diminished support staff and occasionally shut down, according to interviews with people involved in the project.
Counterterrorism officials said those issues were a natural result of the transition from one contract to another and added that it did not impede the systems' effectiveness.
A recent review by SRI and subcontractors, done at the behest of government officials, turned up more than 500 instances where the system did not function as planned or as analysts expected. The systems under development, for instance, did not enable analysts examining terrorist data to see classified cables, to easily sort and filter search results or to search for non-exact matches, the June 18 document said.
One contract executive involved in Railhead, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the work, asserted that the project was not properly planned and that some tasks may have to start over. The executive said Boeing and SRI did not work well together in the public's interest. Contractors assessing the project complained about the lack of cooperation from Boeing in the June 18 document.
"A request for data listed below to complete the gap analysis was requested from Boeing. The information requested below has not been provided by the LSI [lead system integrator]," the document said.
In an interview, Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Science and Technology subcommittee on investigations and oversight, said those documents, provided by a whistle-blower who worked for a contractor, show the Railhead program is in trouble.
In an Aug. 21 letter, Miller asked the inspector general to investigate "the technical failure and mismanagement of one of the government's most important counterterrorism programs."
"This is a critical national security program that has been plagued by technical design and development errors, basic management blunders and poor government oversight," Miller said in a news release issued that same day.
Officials at the counterterrorism center said the staff material Miller provided in support of his request contains factual errors, including a claim that thousands of CIA cables had not been properly entered into TIDE and that the program has cost $500 million so far.
The officials acknowledged the "gap analysis" reports issued in June. But they said most of those shortcomings have been addressed in recent months and that information in those reports was taken out of context.
Despite occasional outages, the TIDE system has been available for counterterrorism work more than 99 percent of the time, and it has not missed any deadlines for supplying terrorist information to watch-list systems, one senior government official said.
Miller defended going public with his preliminary probe, saying "we conduct our business in the open."