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FBI’s Computer Upgrade Develops Its Own Glitches

Times Staff Writer

Even before Sept. 11, it was on the FBI’s most-wanted list -- a computer upgrade to replace the creaky, largely paper-driven information system that the bureau had relied on for decades.

Then, amid concern that primitive technology might have prevented agents from sharing leads that could have led them to some of the terrorists who participated in the attacks, the FBI agreed to jump-start the computer project, known as Trilogy, and Congress poured in additional millions.

Today, one of the largest and most crucial technology projects in bureau history has developed its own glitches, and its price tag is rising sharply. Members of Congress are grumbling about having to kick in extra money to keep the project on track. In a report issued last month, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine described the upgrade as a case study in how not to manage an information revolution.

The FBI recently concluded that the project’s estimated $458-million cost is expected to increase by 30%, a source familiar with the proposal said. FBI officials say the increase is needed to ensure system security and to enhance records management and information sharing, among other goals.

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Congress last week signaled that it is in no mood to throw money at FBI technology. In adopting its spending bill on Thursday, the Senate eliminated about $100 million in funding that the FBI expected for related high-tech projects this year. Among those in danger of being shelved or delayed: digital storage of millions of documents related to counter-terrorism investigations, data-mining tools and a cyber-crime SWAT team.

‘A Large Disaster’

Some skeptical lawmakers, citing the FBI’s history of technology cost overruns and delays, see history repeating itself in the bureau’s big computer upgrade.

“Unfortunately, Trilogy has become a large disaster,” Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee that oversees the FBI budget, said during a recent debate on homeland security spending. “FBI software and hardware contracts for Trilogy have essentially become gold-plated. The cost is soaring. The schedule is out of control.”

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Historically, high tech has been a decidedly low priority at the bureau. Over the years, money budgeted for computer upgrades has been used to put more cops on the beat.

Some of the computer projects the FBI oversaw haven’t exactly been models of efficiency: Systems for fingerprinting and criminal background checks cost more and took much longer than anyone expected.

Yet, computer glitches continued to factor into some of the bureau’s higher-profile missteps, including documents that allegedly had been withheld from lawyers for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh. In another incident, FBI turncoat Robert Philip Hanssen used the bureau’s computer system to find out whether his fellow agents knew that he was passing secrets to the Russians.

Although she declined to discuss specifics, an FBI spokeswoman said that “improving technology is extremely important and a vital mission of the new FBI.”

Indeed, thousands of new desktop computers already have been brought into many FBI offices across the country -- even if they lack all the critical software they need.

In a recent letter to the inspector general, FBI Chief Information Officer Darwin John said the bureau is well on its way to fixing many of the high-tech management problems the watchdog identified.

The two companies managing the overhaul for the bureau -- DynCorp of Reston, Va., and Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego -- referred questions to the FBI.

Limits on Speed

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At the least, the Trilogy experience shows the limits of trying to mobilize quickly in the war against terrorism. Despite earlier assurances to Congress, the FBI has discovered that there are limits to how fast the project can be deployed without risking security. Technical problems and personnel shortages have caused further delays.

The idea seemed simple enough: Develop basic computer networks and enable field agents to share information about investigations with each other and perhaps other law enforcement personnel. Down the road was the possibility of arming the bureau with high-tech tools to help anticipate and intercept acts of terrorism or other crimes.

But for the FBI, which has relied on systems that one computer publication compared to having all the speed of the Pony Express, that was a big change.

For years, agents have been unable to perform anything more than basic word searches of computer texts. Before the upgrade was launched, roughly half of the bureau’s computers were more than 8 years old; the communications gear linking them was so old that replacement parts were no longer made. Databases grew up unable to connect to each other.

Trilogy was conceived as a way to change the culture and help refashion the bureau from a shoe-leather crime-tracker into a high-tech domestic-intelligence sleuth that rooted out threats of terrorism. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has made improved technology one of the bureau’s top 10 priorities.

The system start-up has suffered from poor planning and the fact that existing structures were in far worse shape than anticipated, according to the inspector general’s report released last month and other sources.

Delivery of hundreds of desktop computers was held up because some field offices lacked sufficient fiber-optic cable to replace ancient and crumbling lines. A plan to make an automated case-support system available via the Internet was scrapped because it was considered unworkable.

Existing FBI databases were so old that project managers could not find documentation showing how they were configured. That forced the bureau to engage in a process of reverse engineering to determine the systems’ structure and components.

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The inspector general also takes the FBI to task for missing a self-imposed July 2002 deadline for installing hardware and other gear systemwide, even after getting extra money from Congress. Installation is now set to be completed by March 31.

The final phase of crucial user-application software will not be finished before its original June 2004 target date, the inspector general’s report states. Funding problems could push the date back further. “Some FBI officials say the [user application] portion of Trilogy is at significant risk of not being completed on schedule or within budget,” it adds.

“The Trilogy project provides an example of how the nonimplementation of fundamental [information technology] investment management practices can put a project at risk of not delivering what was promised, within cost and schedule requirements,” the report concludes.

Although the FBI has made some recent headway, including the hiring in March of a new Trilogy project manager who has emphasized more structured oversight, management woes persist, the report states.

Funding Cut Planned

Overall, the FBI is set to receive a total budget of $3.9 billion, down from $4.2 billion a year earlier. The White House has been pressing for cuts because it is predicting gaping government-wide deficits over the next two years, even without the cost of a war with Iraq. White House officials last week indicated that they may beef up homeland defense spending in the fiscal 2004 budget to be sent to Congress on Feb. 3.

Some Democrats are concerned about the reduced funding and see the possibility of serious backsliding in the terrorism war.

“The FBI continues to operate with a 20th century computer system as terrorists are engaging in 21st century cyber-warfare,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) complained in a letter to FBI Director Mueller this month. “I simply cannot believe this indiscriminate slashing of your budget will help you reform the FBI and protect America from those who would do us harm.”

Agents say they have begun to see some improvement in basic computer features, and that it would be shortsighted to slash spending at this point.

“We definitely have better hardware out here, and we have some basic things that we have been screaming about for a while,” such as scanning technology, said Nancy Savage, an agent in Eugene, Ore., who is president of the FBI Agents Assn. “I think your working street agent has not seen a huge change, but rightfully, they had to go in and fix the infrastructure first.”


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