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FBI computer overhaul hits another snag

The FBI may have to scrap a new computer project that was designed to help agents share information, with officials describing it as inadequate and outdated.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A $170 million computer overhaul intended to give FBI agents and analysts an instantaneous and paperless way to manage criminal and terrorism cases is headed back to the drawing board, probably at a much steeper cost to taxpayers.

The FBI is hoping to salvage some parts of the project, known as Virtual Case File. But officials acknowledged Thursday that it is possible the entire system, designed by Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, is so inadequate and outdated that one will have to be built from scratch.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, FBI Director Robert Mueller made improvement of the agency’s computer systems a priority. Members of Congress and the independent Sept. 11 commission said the overhaul is critical to enabling the FBI and intelligence agencies such as the CIA to “connect the dots” in preventing attacks.

“I am frustrated by the delays,” Mueller said Thursday in Birmingham, Ala. “I am frustrated that we do not have on every agent’s desk the capability of a modern case-management system.”

The FBI did not get what was envisioned, said a senior FBI official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because the project is the subject of an internal review by the Justice Department’s inspector general. The official said its capabilities were only a fraction of what was sought.

It is not clear how much more money will have to be spent. The official said the FBI probably will have to ask Congress for additional funds. Some of the necessary software is probably now commercially available, which was not the case when the project began.

Virtual Case File was to be the final piece of the overhaul of antiquated FBI computers, called the Trilogy project. The first two phases of the project — deployment of a high-speed, secure FBI computer network and 30,000 new desktop computers — have been completed.

SAIC spokesman Jared Adams said the company “delivered the Virtual Case File system initial operation capability in December as agreed to” and would have no further comment until the Justice Department review is finished.

'Train wreck in slow motion'
Sen. Charles Grassley, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the possibility that the system may be scrapped is disappointing.

“I hope we haven’t just been pouring money down a rat hole at taxpayers’ expense,” said Grassley, R-Iowa.

The top Judiciary Committee Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, called the FBI computer overhaul “a train wreck in slow motion” and said money alone won’t solve the problem.

“The FBI needs to stop hiding its problems and begin confronting them early on,” Leahy said.

Virtual Case File was supposed to provide a way for FBI agents, analysts and other personnel around the world to share information about all types of investigations, including terrorism cases, without using paper or resorting to time-consuming scanning of documents.

Under the current system, for example, all FBI terrorism documents are loaded into a central database each night; under Virtual Case File the information would be available much faster.

The FBI officials said that although all essential national security information is available under the current system, it is more cumbersome than it should be.

The main database, known as the Investigative Data Warehouse, can be accessed by about 6,000 FBI officials as well as others on the bureau’s joint terrorism task forces around the country.

Reasons for the problems include weak management of the project contract, numerous hurdles in figuring out how to share often-secret information with other agencies and the difficulty of making such major changes without requiring the FBI to suspend operations, at least for short periods.

The FBI will make a final decision on the Virtual Case File provided by SAIC after a limited test of the system in the New Orleans FBI office and completion of a $2 million independent evaluation by computer experts at Aerospace Corp., whose primary government customer is NASA.