Hapless FBI Can’t Even Solve Its Own Computer Problems

A post-Sept. 11 computer system was supposed to solve problems for the FBI, giving agents, analysts and personnel around the world the ability to share information without using paper or time-consuming scanning of documents.

But the $170 million Virtual Case File project has proved so inadequate and outdated, it may be shelved.

“I am frustrated by the delays,” FBI Director Robert 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 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, will have to be built from scratch.

The FBI did not get what it envisioned, according to 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.

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

It is not clear how many more taxpayer dollars will have to be spent. The FBI official said the agency 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.

Science Applications International 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.

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.

The computer overhaul was intended to give FBI agents and analysts an instantaneous and paperless way to manage all types of investigations, including terrorism cases.

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 with the new system 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 Science Applications 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 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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