FBI picking up IT pieces

The FBI has not decided whether to scrap its Virtual Case File effort, despite an outside evaluator's recommendation, said FBI Director Robert Mueller during a Capitol Hill hearing last week.

"We are looking at that," Mueller said while testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee Feb. 3. Bureau officials should know in the next six to eight weeks whether they plan to discard Virtual Case File in favor of commercial software, he added.

Virtual Case File, a $170 million effort to allow FBI agents to electronically circulate investigation reports, is more than a year late. The application was originally due in December 2003, but only 10 percent of the system's planned capabilities have been completed by contractor Science Applications International Corp., said Zalmai Azmi, the FBI's chief information officer. Analysts at Aerospace, an independent contractor that bureau officials hired to assess the system, recommend that the FBI unplug the project.

A report by the Justice Department inspector general says that FBI officials are already planning to award a contract by April 30 to develop a new framework for a multiagency case management system.

The new Federal Investigative Case Management System "will provide a blueprint to guide the FBI in eventually acquiring the capabilities that the current [case file] effort has been unable to accomplish," the report states. Any new case file management system is unlikely to substantially benefit from the time and money the bureau has invested in the Virtual Case File, the report states.

Mueller said he shares responsibility for the apparent failure of the system and that FBI managers failed to control the project's development. The Justice Department may sue SAIC to recover a portion of the costs, he added.

Among the reasons the Virtual Case File's price tag kept rising was the contracting method used. SAIC was paid for hours worked — known as a cost-plus contract. Such contracts are difficult to manage, Mueller said. "We will never again in the bureau enter into a cost-plus project that can lead us so far astray," he added.

SAIC officials disputed the notion that their company failed to meet expectations. "We feel we fully complied with the contract we had," said Arnold Punaro, SAIC executive vice president, after the hearing. He said he's not worried about any possible actions from the Justice Department.

In a separate interview, Mark Hughes, president of SAIC's system and network solutions group, said Aerospace analysts reached their conclusions prematurely. SAIC delivered an initial operating capability (IOC) in December, which he said addressed most problems Aerospace analysts found when they examined the system earlier.

"I think the report is meaningless because they looked at the wrong version of the system," he said. "They looked at the system as it existed last spring. What they should be evaluating is the IOC system that we delivered in December."

The automated workflow portion of the Virtual Case File is the only part of the system that is operational, but only on a test basis in the New Orleans field office. The system was supposed to manage records and evidence electronically 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, Azmi said.

FBI officials submitted change requests at a rate of 1.3 per day, Punaro said. "I don't know what their requirements are. I don't think they know what their requirements are," he said.

Company officials were aware the project was running adrift, Punaro said, but "we were told, 'Put your heads down and press forward,' for good and sufficient reasons on the part of the FBI."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the Virtual Case File has been like "a train wreck in slow motion."

Case management "shouldn't be rocket science," Leahy said. "Most companies have to do it. It should be doable."

Leahy also complained that Mueller assured senators in May 2004 that the Virtual Case File was on track for deployment by the end of last year. But at the time of Mueller's testimony, the inspector general's report shows that the program "was already on life support," Leahy said.

Michael Hardy contributed to this report.

Auditors find fault

FBI Director Robert Mueller was called before the Senate Appropriations Committee last week to answer questions about the bureau's failed Virtual Case File system. A Justice Department inspector general also issued an audit of the system. The report blames the collapse of the FBI's Virtual Case File program on a number of factors, including:

* Poorly defined and slowly evolving design requirements.

* Contracting and investment oversight weaknesses.

* Unrealistic scheduling.

* High turnover in FBI management ranks.

Source: Justice Department inspector general report

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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