Case of the defunct file system

FBI expected to halt work as problems with system persist

Ballpoint pens and yellow steno pads will be FBI mainstays for a while longer following bureau officials' admission that their electronic case management system will likely be outdated before it can be fully implemented.

Virtual Case File, a $170 million effort to allow FBI agents to electronically circulate investigation reports, is more than a year late. Despite five years' work, contractor Science Applications International Corp. has completed only about one-tenth of the system's planned capability, an FBI official said at a Jan. 13 press briefing. The FBI official spoke on condition of anonymity.

Analysts at Aerospace, an independent contractor that FBI officials hired to assess the system, have recommended that the FBI stop funding the project, a Justice Department official said. Virtual Case File "turned out to be a bit of a pig, because it's custom-coded," said the Justice official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Aerospace analysts also concluded that SAIC developers did a poor coding job, the Justice official said.

Updating the system's capabilities is virtually impossible. For example, the system can't create or transmit electronic signatures, nor could that capability be added.

"We stand behind the quality of our work, and we're waiting for the reports to be published," an SAIC spokesman said.

The automated workflow portion of Virtual Case File is the only part of the system that is operational, but only on a test basis in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. The system was supposed to manage electronic records and electronic evidence and allow for varying levels of access based on a user's security clearance. Officials will run the test program through March, when the system will be shut down, the FBI official said.

The absence of the Virtual Case File creates a gap in homeland security, said Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the 9-11 Commission. "The FBI cannot carry out its counterterrorism mission fully and successfully if it does not have the computer systems that allow real-time sharing of information," he said. In a country where banks and credit card companies routinely process hundreds of millions of transactions every day, "it's hard to understand, for me at least, how we can't get the FBI computers right," he added.

The project failed partly because bureau officials tried to take a system designed for managing criminal cases "and shoehorn it into something with a much broader set of requirements," said Matthew Blaze, an associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania who helped write a National Research Council assessment of the FBI's technology modernization efforts.

Changing requirements resulting from the FBI's expanded counterterrorism mission and other more conventional problems such as managing the vendor contract created a difficult technology integration challenge, Blaze said.

Rather than continue to pay for Virtual Case File, bureau officials will release a new request for proposals in the first half of this year, the Justice official said.

Justice officials began work last year on the Federal Investigative Case Management System, an initiative to create a common information-sharing infrastructure for all federal agencies that conduct criminal investigations.

The Justice official said the RFP for that system will include the needs the Virtual Case File system would have fulfilled. The contract award will go to a vendor with a product that can evolve, the official said, adding, "We're not going to do the whole kitchen sink all in one RFP."

Resistance by FBI agents to new technology is a major challenge, the official said. The Robert Hanssen spy scandal dampened bureau officials' technology zeal, he said. "Talk about once bitten and twice shy. They didn't have good controls in place, and he was able to track the investigation of himself" by monitoring bureau computer traffic.

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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