FBI may scrap $170 million project

Leahy: The program is 'a train wreck in slow motion'

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau
Thursday, January 13, 2005 Posted: 9:23 PM EST (0223 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A top FBI official said Thursday the bureau may have to scrap a computer program that so far has cost $170 million and was intended to be an important tool in fighting terrorism.

Bureau officials told a news briefing that they expect to find that after four years in development their much-touted Virtual Case File system does not work. But they said a suitable replacement is commercially available.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the project is being reviewed by the Justice Department, The Associated Press reported.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, who was in Birmingham, Alabama, Thursday, said he was "frustrated by the delays."

"I am frustrated that we do not have on every agent's desk the capability of a modern case management system," Mueller said.

"At the same time, we have made substantial changes in the way we handle information information technology within the FBI."

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the program "a train wreck in slow motion."

Leahy noted that the FBI said last May the Virtual Case File system would be completed by the end of 2004.

"Now we learn that the FBI began to explore new options last August, because it feared that VCF was going to fail," Leahy said in a press release.

"Bringing the FBI's information technology into the 21st century should not be rocket science."

He said that getting straight answers from the Justice Department and the FBI "has been so difficult that we had to take the step of asking for an independent investigation by the Government Accountability Office."

Speed information sharing

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the FBI and contractor Science Applications International Corp. have been racing to complete the project, which is intended to speed the rapid sharing of information.

"It's like changing the wheels on a car going 70 miles an hour," the senior FBI official told reporters. "We're mission-oriented. We have no down time."

The official acknowledged the seriousness of the flaws, but insisted the problems have had no major impact on the FBI's counterterrorism efforts.

"All the information is getting there. It's just that we're doing it the hard way," the official said.

Counterterrorism information collected by agents through interviews and surveillance currently becomes available only after it is uploaded nightly into a system accessible to the nation's intelligence community.

The current program requires FBI personnel to manually enter, print, sign and scan their information into the "investigative data warehouse."

start quoteI am frustrated that we do not have on every agent's desk the capability of a modern case management system.end quote
-- FBI Director Robert Mueller

Counterterrorism information collected by agents gets top priority and is entered into the system within 24 hours.

Information dealing with such matters as violent crime, organized crime, fraud and other white-collar crime may take days to be shared throughout the law enforcement community, the officials said.

The new software program was supposed to allow agents to pass along along intelligence and criminal information in real time.

The FBI expects to learn within weeks whether it will have to scrap the system, a scenario the officials said was likely.

Before making that decision, the FBI is awaiting a final report by an independent consultant, Aerospace Corp., hired to review the state of the the software project and analyze what is available commercially.

FBI officials indicated they expect to get the consultant's conclusion by the end of the month. They predicted that at least $130 million of the $170 million project could be lost.

Field test

Meanwhile, the FBI's New Orleans field office has launched a three-month pilot project to determine whether about 10 percent of the Virtual Case File system development can be salvaged.

The office will run a prototype of the system that SAIC delivered to the FBI in December after missing previous deadlines.

"We delivered the initial operational capability of the FBI's virtual case file system as contractually agreed upon, at the end of December," said SAIC spokesman Jared Adams.

The senior FBI official said he would withhold a verdict on whether any portion of the software could be incorporated into a successor system until the trial's conclusion.

Top FBI officials cited a wide range of reasons for the software-development problems.

start quoteIt's like changing the wheels on a car going 70 miles an hour.end quote
-- Senior FBI official

The rapidly changing state of technology was insufficiently understood, and an entire system was developed to replace the antiquated FBI computer and record management systems.

One official said that "next time" the FBI would seek a modular system in which capabilities can be added or changed to the existing structure.

The FBI said the changed mission of the bureau following the September 11 attacks added a burden to the case-file system developers, who launched the complex project upgrade in 2000.

FBI officials say they are awaiting a review on the status of the agency's major technology projects, which together are costing more than $500 million.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, is working on a broad review of the FBI technology upgrades, including the troubled project.

Key FBI officials were scheduled to meet Thursday with the Justice Department inspector general and separately with lawmakers to discuss the developments.