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Five Years Later: FBI Computer Security

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Dan Eggen and Griff Witte
Washington Post
Friday, August 18, 2006; 12:00 PM

On Friday, August 18 at noon ET, Justice Department correspondent, Dan Eggen, answered questions about FBI computer security in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

The FBI's Upgrade That Wasn't, August 18

Old-School Academy in Post-9/11 World, August 17

'Just Don't Quit', August 17

Special report: Sept. 11 - Five Years Later

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Dan Eggen: Good afternoon all. There are a lot of good questions already on this topic, so let's get started!

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Arlington, Va.: I'm sorry if this is a simplistic question but it sees to me that the FBI is not the first agency to need this kind of software system. Police agencies? CIA? NSA? Why couldn't the most similar system be identified and used as a framework or starting point for the new system. It seems like the functions and needs are not so unusual or complicated. Why couldn't Access and Excell be used as a starting point? that said, I work as a contractor with lots of public agencies and on some projects it is like pulling teeth to get them to sit down and meet and participate in the project. Get educated and provide oversight. It's often assume that "somebody else" will deal with the contractor. I can see this happening at the FBI where managers may not have the techinical comfort level so didn't want to participate or felt they were not qualified to participate in the project. this is where the contractor needs to be assertive in communicating with the project manager. You're not doing them (and yourself and the project) any favors by burning up fee spinning your wheels. And last I'm surprised that the project was so out of control that a complete restart was the only save possible.

Dan Eggen: Those are all good questions and, of course, there are no easy answers. But there are several main themes to this program failure, and a key one is the fatal mistake of deciding to build software from scratch rather than using commercial, off-the-shelf components as a starting point. Every expert who has looked at this case points to that as one of the central missteps. The new project, Sentinel, will start with off-the-shelf products (a point I regret to say was not as clear as it should have been in our lengthy story!)

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Severna Park, Md.: What an interesting story. What struck me was the FBI's strategy for developing the "new" system - hire a big contractor and give them hundreds of millions of dollars - again! OK, now it is Lockheed-Martin, not SAIC, but wasn't the strategy wrong in the first place?

I work in IT and manage very large development projects. What is most successful is for the customer (the FBI in this case) to have their own very highly skilled and compensated project managers, to break the projects down into deliverable parts, and contract each "part" individually. They you don't end up throwing things away. Otherwise, just get yourself ready to write the same story in another five years.

Do you think this -new- project will be successful? Thanks.

Dan Eggen: Far be it from me to make a prediction, but the FBI insists they have learned from their mistakes and that the new contract is designed from top to bottom to avoid the same blunders. It's a pay-as-you-go set up, rather than open-ended; it will use off the shelf software as a starting point; and there are detailed "milestones" that have to be reached all along the way.

Unfortunately, we won't really know until the end of this decade, since the full system is no scheduled to go online until 2009.

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washingtonpost.com:

The FBI's Upgrade That Wasn't, August 18

Old-School Academy in Post-9/11 World, August 17

'Just Don't Quit', August 17

Special report: Sept. 11 - Five Years Later

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Washington, D.C.: Good afternoon. I read the article about changes to FBI training yesterday, so this question is not specifically about computer security.

My son, who was in naval intelligence and has years of experience tracking down terrorists, wanted to join the FBI after he got out of the Navy. He was told there was a waiting period of at least a year. Nevertheless, he submitted his paperwork, went through numerous screenings, etc. In the end, he decided not to pursue it because of salary. How can the powers-that-be expect to attract bright young men and women into this agency when they are not willing to change the pay structure? I also read the article in Sunday's Post comparing the salaries and benefits of those in government service with the private sector. And I agree; long-term, it may make sense for some people to choose government service. But I am asking specifically about the starting salaries offered to those who are supposed to be protecting the security of our country.

Dan Eggen: I'm glad you brought up the superb stories by my colleague, Sari Horwitz, looking at the training program for new FBI recruits and how it's changed--perhaps not enough--since 9/11. We'll try to link to them for those who haven't read them.

Your point is one of the many challenges the FBI faces in recruiting top talent, not only at the entry level but at the top. The turnover rates are astonishingly high, especially at the top and largley because of the lucrative resources available in the private sector.

But at the same time, I know Sari was struck by the incredible backgrounds of many of those who wanted to join the FBI. Most were highly accomplished in highly competitive fields, many had PhD's, but all wanted to serve by joining the bureau. Whatever its problems, that certainly does say something about the bureau's allure as an organization.

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Contractors Can't Win: 19 leadership changes from the FBI... each one wanting a new bell or whistle.

In the real world, contractors don't really have the option to say "no" to clients like the FBI. Exert yourself too strongly and you find yourself on the street. Or on the wrong end of a scathing report by some other Contractor. Most likely someone who is competing with you on some other arge piece of business.

There's really no way to win.

Dan Eggen: There clearly is plenty of blame to go around, and there is ample evidence that the FBI bungled this program badly almost from the start. The turnover, the lack of expertise, the constantly changing requirements, etc.

But a lot of people who have examined this case, and even some within SAIC, acknowledged that the contractor also bears a lot of responsibility and should have raised alarms when it became clear how wildly off track the project had gotten.

One of the overarching themes here is that these are the kind of challenges that needd to be handled much better as the federal government increasingly outsources to the private sector.

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Washington, D.C.: What impact will this incident have upon SAIC?

Dan Eggen: Obviously SAIC is an exceedingly large and respected company, and the FBI project--even as it ballooned--was never one of their largest jobs. We were unable to get an official reaction from the company, which refused to comment on several occasions as we worked on this story, but they have lain most of the blame on the FBI in statements to Congress.

It's likely that both sides will continue to fight over this for some time to come. The FBI is awaiting an internal government audit before deciding whether to attempt to recoup costs from the contractor.

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Guilford, Conn.: Is the new Lockheed Martin system based on modifications of existing software, or is it another start from scratch.

Dan Eggen: In case you missed my comment above, the new program will rely on off-the-shelf software as a starting point.

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Reston, Va.: Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent/spy, was regarded as an odd-ball, partly because he was into computers. The previous Post article mentioned that analysts were lower in status than agents. Your article quotes an agent as saying he doesn't want to type into a computer, he wants to get in the field and play cops and robbers (my biased paraphrase) or be John O'Neill. Doesn't sound like an environment where good computer projects are going to succeed. (Unless Mueller can change the culture.)

Dan Eggen: This is an important point. As both this technology story and Sari's stories yesterday show, the FBI is going through a very rough transition time right now and there is a lot of cultural tug-of-war internally.

The Quantico training, for example, is still primarily focused on turning out old-fashioned FBI agents who can handle firearms, investigate "regular" crimes, etc. That's not necessarily bad, but the bureau does also have to find a way to meld other needs--from technology to terrorism--into its culture.

Some old FBI hands will point out that this has been done successfully in the past. For decades, for example, the bureau attracted (and still attracts) a lot of top-notch accountants (CPAs)who were invaluable in tracking and prosecuting sophisticated financial crimes. I think Director Mueller and other FBI leaders hope to attract the same kind of expertise to take on these new challenges.

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The FBI's Upgrade That Wasn't, August 18

Old-School Academy in Post-9/11 World, August 17

'Just Don't Quit', August 17

Special report: Sept. 11 - Five Years Later

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Gainesville, Fla.: Why is there such rapid turnover in the chief technology officer job at the bureau?It seems some continuity would help solve some of the problems.

Dan Eggen: The FBI in general has a terrible turnover problem at the top, and it's been exacerbated since the 9/11 attacks by the mushrooming homeland-security sector that dangles big money and perks in front of top government officials with security or terrorism expertise.

My sense--and I should stress this is more a hunch than anything--is that the FBI's technology positions have been further hampered by the cultural problems highlighted above. Until recently, being in tech would not have been considered a prime bureau job. They also had such a mess on their hands it couldn't have been fun to try and fix it.

That said, the new head of technology, Zalmai Azmi, has now been on the job for about two years and looks like he's intent on staying for some time to come. Sentinel will be his big test.

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West Palm Beach, Fla.: Were there any success stories regarding tech-improvement for FBI agents? Are they still relying on faxes and paper files?

Dan Eggen: Yes and no. As the story notes, the basic case management system is still paper-based and the software system they use to augment this is old "green-screen" technology (many of us may remember these types of systems from 20 years ago).

It's awkward, based on function keys, and takes 12 steps just to key in a document, such as an FBI "302" report detailing an interview by an agent. You also have to key in precisely the right spelling to find files, which is particularly problematic with Arabic names and others that are spelled phonetically in English.

But everything still starts on paper, and the forms and process haven't changed much since J. Edgar Hoover first implemented a system in the 20s, when the FBI was called the Bureau of Investigation in the Justice Department.

The success were two other components of the three-part "Trilogy" project: thousands of new PCs and servers have been installed in FBI field offices around the country. So there has been improvement.

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Washington D.C.: Can you monitor the progress of the SENTINEL program? With the "stricter" program management, there should be more artifacts available to determine if SENTINEL is repeating the same problems that occurred in the earlier project.

The chance that the same problems will occur seem very high.

Dan Eggen: I'm sure we and many others will attempt to keep tabs on Sentinel as it moves along. One big milestone is supposed to come next year, when they are scheduled to launch a web interface for the old system that will look a lot like the new one, as a transition step.

But it should be noted that the Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn Fine, warned in a report earlier this year that the FBI was still headed for trouble again for a variety of reasons, including management turnover and weak financial controls.

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New York, NY: IEEE Spectrum ran this same story with most of the same sources, including the first and only public statement by former SAIC contractor Matthew Patton in September 2005, one year ago. http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/sep05/1455

Spectrum also litigated a FOIA request for nine months before obtaining the Aerospace report last April, and posted a radio roundtable last June.

So why isn't IEEE Spectrum cited or its investigative reporting acknowledged in any way? And what is so new about this year old story that it merits front page coverage in the Post?

Dan Eggen: Thought I'd post this just to get this complaint out there. (This may be the same person who emailed me this morning with a similar complaint; sorry we didn't get back to you quick enough!)

I know I read that piece along with numerous other pieces done by us, other major newspapers and numerous other trade publications, as part of our preparation for this story. Then we did our own interviews, obtained our own documents, etc. This is pretty much the way journalism always works.

I believe our story was obviously different in approach, included many different sources, and was intended as an overview of a case study five years after 9/11 for a general interest newspaper audience. We certainly never implied that this topic hadn't been covered before--in fact we pointed it out! (If we had to avoid topics that had been covered before, I'm afraid you'd have a pretty thin newspaper every day...)

That said, I would urge anyone with a deep interest to also read the IEEE Spectrum articles and many others that the industry press has written about this. There's a lot of good stuff, especially for a more tech-focused audience.

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Washington, D.C.: What was the motivation for writing this article? Most, if not all, of this story is old news that was examined in some detail in the media over a year ago. I realize this has a loose connection to the WaPo's current FBI series of articles, but considering that SAIC has plans to perform an IPO soon, the timing seems a bit odd.

Dan Eggen: Since this seems related to the previous post, I'll answer this: Nothing conspiratorial here, it just took a while for two reporters with demanding news beats to make time for this topic over a period of many months--and then the newspaper had to find space to print it!

As journalists, we commonly struggle with this kind of debate. Both Griff and I wrote "daily" news stories about developments with Trilogy/Sentinel, but I can tell you from many emails and phone calls that a large part of our audience misses all that inside baseball. By doing a story like this, the Post simply hoped to focus readers' attention on an important topic and hopefully add some new elements to the debate in the process.

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Long Beach, Calif.: Thanks for taking my question... you see I don't understand how it could have happened.

I'm an IT Architect - I interview CEO's to find their biggest goal and problem and design a configuration of computers and web site tools to achieve those goals through human productivity improvement, process improvement, operations improvement, info tracking, melding conflicting systems that are out of date with each other, ads, marketing, etc... all of it... the messier the better.

I've always been amazed at the rank incometence of our government's use of IT.

I could have had the FBI's tools wrapped in a bow and delivered in phases over two years time (a GENEROUS timeframem mind you) with a single call to IBM. Yeah IBM.. remember those guys? I'm not special in this regard - we all do it in industry - its how business large and small runs today.

I just don't understand how something so commonly handled in industry can slay our government... are they just truly inept?

Dan Eggen: This is really a good question. You can go through all these reports, and see all the fingerpointing and all the rest, and you are still left with this basic question: If almost everyone else can do it, why can't they? It really shouldn't be that hard, and I think that's what so frustrating not only to outside technology experts and many lawmakers, but to many regular agents within the FBI.

The hiring boon at the bureau over the last five years may help in this regard, because most of these recruits come from the private sector or even academia, where they are accustomed to good technology and probably won't tolerate bad systems for too long.

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Dan Eggen: Well I'm afraid we've run out of time; sorry I couldn't get to so many more good questions. You can always email me or Griff through the link to our names at the top of the story, if you have more questions or comments.

Thanks everyone!

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