A new FBI computer program designed to help agents share information to ward off terrorist attacks may have to be scrapped, the agency has concluded, forcing a further delay in a four-year, half-billion-dollar overhaul of its antiquated computer system.
The bureau is so convinced that the software, known as Virtual Case File, will not work as planned that it has taken steps to begin soliciting proposals from outside contractors for new software, officials said.
The overhaul of the decrepit computer system was identified as a priority both by the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks and by members of Congress, who found that the FBI’s old system prevented agents from sharing information that could have headed off the attacks.
Since the attacks, Congress has given the FBI a blank check, allocating billions of dollars in additional funding. So far the overhaul has cost $581 million, and the software problems are expected to set off a debate over how well the bureau has been spending those dollars.
The bureau recently commissioned a series of independent studies to determine whether any part of the Virtual Case File software could be salvaged. Any decision to proceed with new software would add tens of millions of dollars to the development costs and render worthless much of a current $170-million contract.
Requests for proposals for new software could be sought this spring, the officials said. The bureau is no longer saying when the project, originally scheduled for completion by the end of 2003, might be finished.
FBI officials have scheduled a briefing today to discuss what a spokesman said was the “current status of FBI information technology upgrades.”
A prototype of the Virtual Case File was delivered to the FBI last month by Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego. But bureau officials consider it inadequate and already outdated, and are using it mainly on a trial basis to glean information from users that will be incorporated in a new design.
Science Applications has received about $170 million from the FBI for its work on the project. Sources said about $100 million of that would be essentially lost if the FBI were to scrap the software.
“It would be a stunning reversal of progress,” Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the FBI, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times this week. “If the software has failed ... that sets us back a long way.
“This has been a fits-and-starts exercise, and a very expensive one for a very long time,” he added. “There are very serious questions about whether the FBI is able to keep up with the expanding responsibility and the amount of new dollars that are flowing into it. We have fully funded it at its requested levels.”
A spokesman for Science Applications, Ron Zollars, said via e-mail that the company had “successfully completed” delivery of the initial version of the Virtual Case File software last month. He declined to comment further.
The stripped-down prototype will be running for three months. The bureau plans to then “shut it down, take all the lessons learned and incorporate them in a future case management system,” a person familiar with the bureau’s plans said.
Science Applications will apparently be no part of that future: Its contract expires at the end of March, and there were no plans to renew it, sources said.
That the software may have outlived its usefulness even before it has been fully implemented did not surprise some computer experts.
An outside computer analyst who has studied the FBI’s technology efforts said the agency’s problem is that its officials thought they could get it right the first time. “That never happens with anybody,” he said.
Some sources sympathetic to the FBI defended the process, and said that what has been learned in designing the software has given the bureau valuable design and user information.
The replacement software may even be called the Virtual Case File, although it is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the product that is being rolled out to about 300 users testing the prototype in New Orleans and Washington. The prototype’s main feature allows users to prepare documents and forward them in a usable form.
Eventually, the FBI expects to have software with added features for managing records, evidence and other documents, along with the ability for users to collaborate on documents and share information online.
The move is being engineered by Zalmai Azmi, who has been the FBI’s chief information officer for the last year. People familiar with his work say Azmi recognizes that the change in direction is likely to generate political heat but that it will serve the bureau better in the long run.
The development illustrates the problems in keeping up with rapidly changing technology that confront any business, as well as the changing mission of the FBI since the Sept. 11 attacks, among other issues.
Since the attacks, the FBI has rolled out thousands of new computers and set up new secure electronic networks to exchange information, both inside the bureau and with a small number of intelligence agencies. The bureau has also created a database covering millions of documents in the agency’s files that are more easily retrievable than before the attacks, and established new systems for managing the overall architecture and budgeting for its computer programs.
The overhaul of the computer system was conceived before the Sept. 11 attacks, when the FBI’s main job was catching drug dealers and corrupt politicians, rather than weeding out terrorists before they could strike. At least until recently, the bureau’s shoe-leather culture never fully embraced cutting-edge technology, leading to rapid turnover in its management ranks.
A Government Accountability Office report last year noted that the FBI had gone through five chief information officers in the preceding 24 months. The chief manager of the technology upgrade known as Trilogy quit last year for personal reasons after being lured from private industry two years ago.
The effort has also been the subject of a number of critical reports. Last spring, technology experts for the National Research Council found that the Trilogy project failed to reflect the FBI’s new emphasis on terrorism prevention and was “not on a path to success.”
A trade publication, Government Computer News, reported late last month that the Justice Department’s inspector general had concluded in a draft report that Virtual Case File would also fail to meet the bureau’s needs, and that officials had “no clear timetable or prospect for completing” it.
A spokesman for the inspector general’s office declined to comment on the draft, as a matter of policy.
The FBI has had preliminary discussions with a number of vendors about the possible design of new software. One approach that the bureau is considering is a case-management system that could be used by other agencies, including the departments of Justice and Homeland Security.
It is also looking into using off-the-shelf technology as a way to save money.
The FBI has retained Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit, federally funded research firm in El Segundo, to conduct an independent evaluation of Virtual Case File.
It has also hired BAE Systems, a British defense contractor, to identify and evaluate the specific needs and requirements for any permanent system.
The companies’ reports are due later this month.