Friday, January 14, 2005

The F.B.I.'s Virtual Nonstarter

The New York Times
January 14, 2005

The F.B.I.'s Virtual Nonstarter

One of the most alarming vulnerabilities to emerge after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has been the Federal Bureau of Investigation's continuing inability to come up with a computer system that enables field agents to act quickly in sharing information and suspicions about where the next threats may emerge. In Senate hearings soon after the attacks, the bureau admitted that its 1980's computer technology could not search its files for cross-references to two words, like "flight" and "schools" - a lethal shortcoming in light of where some of the terrorists prepared for their suicide mission. But a more effective system was in the works, the bureau promised lawmakers. They poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort, expecting the F.B.I. to meet its goal of having the antiterrorist centerpiece - the Virtual Case File - finally up and running by December 2003, a date already a year behind the original goal.

Well, not only has Virtual Case File slipped another year behind, but it also appears close to a virtual death.

Buyer's remorse is widely reported at the bureau, with some specialists estimating that the Virtual Case File's software effort, running at $170 million and counting, may have to be scrapped in favor of fresh starts in research and design by outside contractors. A prototype is undergoing a limited field test, but apparently only with the goal of measuring how short of the mark the F.B.I. has fallen. For four years, the bureau has been enmeshed in a $580 million project called Trilogy, which is aimed at modernizing all its computer systems for its 28,000 officers and other workers. But the crucial investigative piece to speed ground-level information-sharing remains as elusive as it is urgently needed.

There are suggested root causes, based on whether the F.B.I. was starved for funds in the past, technophobic in its shoe-leather police culture or hobbled by a merry-go-round of five technology chiefs in two years. But they do not really matter in the face of the increasing wiliness of terrorists. While the bureau ponders the ESC button, the new Congress should grill the F.B.I.'s hierarchy about the mysteries and disappointments of Virtual Case File and when the nation can expect something real.