FBI failure to create a modern computer network

Wasteful, inept effort to update technology keeps FBI from improving on pre-9/11 mistakes

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“Prior to 9/11, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) did not have an adequate ability to know what it knew,” said a statement from the staff of the 9/11 Commission. The commission faulted the FBI and other agencies for failing to “connect the dots” in a way that might have uncovered the 9/11 plot; the “dots” referred to suspicious activities by the hijackers that had been uncovered, in some cases, by the bureau’s field offices. Yet seven years after the attacks, the FBI is still largely unable to electronically share investigative information among its agents that could help it solve crimes and stop terrorist plots. The bureau embarked on a program known as Trilogy that was designed to weave the FBI’s information together — and make it accessible to agents — using new computers, electronic networks, and software. But the software, called the Virtual Case File (VCF), turned out to be a spectacular failure — and a waste of at least $100 million — as a result of missteps by both the bureau and its main contractor, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).

Among the problems: poorly defined design requirements and a lack of management continuity and oversight. “The urgent need within the FBI to create, organize, share, and analyze investigative leads and case files on an ongoing basis remains unmet,” a report by the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General concluded in February 2005. This failure to provide modern information technology to FBI agents put them at “a severe disadvantage in performing their duties,” the report added. The FBI officially killed VCF in April 2005. "We had information that could have stopped 9/11," Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told The Washington Post. "It was sitting there and was not acted upon. . . . We might be in the 22nd century before we get the 21st-century technology."

Follow-up:
The FBI launched its latest effort to provide agents with modern technology — the Sentinel project — in March 2006, as a cooperative effort with Lockheed Martin. The effort found praise by the Government Accountability Office in an August 2008 audit: the FBI “has implemented a number of best practices for Sentinel,” reported the GAO, “and by doing so has placed itself on a path to both avoid the kind of missteps that led to the failure of VCF and increase the chances of putting needed mission capabilities in the hands of bureau agents and analysts as soon as possible.”. The FBI press office declined to respond to a request for comment, but noted that Director Robert Mueller III told the Senate in September 2008 that the Sentinel IT program “is progressing on time and within budget.”

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