Lawmaker: Terrorism info database troubled

Severe technical troubles, poor management of contractors and weak government oversight have put the federal government’s efforts to enhance and upgrade its primary terrorist identity database at risk, according to a senior Democrat on the House Science and Technology Committee.

Those troubles could jeopardize federal terrorism-related information-sharing efforts, said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C), chairman of the committee’s Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee.

The Railhead project faces massive reorganization or possible abandonment, Miller said. The project seeks to enhance and improve the National Counterterrorism Center's information-sharing capabilities. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence oversees NCTC.

In a letter sent Aug. 21, Miller asked ODNI's inspector general to look into numerous alleged problems with the Railhead project and the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), the current database that NCTC uses.

The subcommittee cites Railhead insiders, official documents and press accounts.

In response, NCTC said the letter was inconsistent with the facts. It said the upgrades, which will be ongoing until 2012, did not hamper information-sharing efforts and that work is ongoing and not limited to TIDE.

The TIDE database is the central repository of terrorism-related information that comes from numerous agencies, and agencies use that information to create various terrorist watch lists. The Railhead program was designed to improve the TIDE database, which Miller's letter said is “suffering from serious, longstanding technical problems.”

“The end result is a current [information technology] system used to identify terrorist threats that has been crippled by technical flaws and a new system that, if actually deployed, will leave our country more vulnerable than the existing yet flawed system in operation today,” Miller's letter states.

NCTC said today that Miller's subcommittee has had no contact with the center on the Railhead program and that “there has been no degradation in the capability to access, manage and share terrorist information during the life of the Railhead program.”

Miller's letter said the TIDE database does not use text searches and might be difficult to search because it stores some data in undocumented tables. The letter adds that Railhead, which could have cost hundreds of millions of dollars so far, might reduce NCTC’s ability to integrate, analyze and search data.

A subcommittee staff member said NCTC's leaders seemed to have recently become aware of the problems facing the program.

Miller urged ODNI's IG to examine the program’s project, contractor and technical management and issue an unclassified report so similar situations with other large IT programs could be avoided in the future.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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