Sunday, September 10, 2006

The FBI’s continued technological incompetence is putting America at risk.

Dangerous Disgrace
The FBI’s continued technological incompetence is putting America at risk.
By Jonathan Alter

Aug. 21, 2006 - Everyone’s got an Exhibit A of the mind-bending, staggering and almost incomprehensible incompetence of the Bush Era. Iraq. Katrina. Medicare. But let’s add one more. Should, God forbid, we be hit again by terrorists, historians will point an unforgiving finger at the computers of the FBI.

As The Washington Post reported on August 18, five years after 9/11 the FBI’s computer system is still not fixed. How can this be? It’s an ugly story of poor management, contractor abuse and an agency that cannot electronically connect the dots—even though nearly everyone agreed in 2001 that developing that ability should be among the top priorities for the United States. It’s as if after Pearl Harbor President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that ships and aircraft be built to fight the Japanese, only to discover that five years later the government had built none.

The blame begins with Louis Freeh, who smugly headed the FBI for eight years under President Bill Clinton. Although he claims to have tried to upgrade the bureau’s computers in 1995, he failed miserably. In 2001, when any large business in the world that wanted to make money was long since fully automated—and when most American six-year-olds could download Little League snapshots—the FBI remained in the horse-and-buggy era. Its rusty mainframes used text-only “green screens” and could not scan reports or transmit photographs. Agents had no PCs and were forced to share e-mail accounts. Because it took 12 steps to upload a single document, most agents gave up and did everything the old-fashioned way—on paper.

Remember the period right after 9/11? I was hardly the only one writing about computers at the FBI. The new FBI director, Robert Mueller, insisted he was focused on the task at hand. He spent $170 million on a plan called “Trilogy” that was meant to solve the Bureau’s technology problems.

From the start, it was a rip-off. The contractor, Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), assigned 200 people to a program that, according to a former employer, could easily have been handled by a dozen. Instead of adapting off-the-shelf software, which any computer consultant with half a brain (make that any person with half a brain) knows is the only way to go, the company decided to design a software system from scratch. Surprise! It didn’t work. If you’ve read even one of the 500,000 articles in the popular press about software development, it’s obvious that the first try never works.

The consultants would, naturally, have us believe that the FBI’s requirements were so complex and security-related that they needed their own system. This is a crock. Many businesses are larger and more complex than the FBI and they, too, have major security considerations. But this is how SAIC ballooned its contract from $14 million annually to $170 million. Then, when it had clearly failed, the contractor blamed the supervisors within the FBI. Natch.

By the time the National Research Council investigated the FBI’s progress in May 2004, the results were pathetic. The review team found that three years after 9/11, the system still didn’t allow agents to take their cases into the field on laptops. The program did not have bookmarking or archiving features that are standard in the least expensive commercial software. And the system could not properly sort data. Worst of all, the researchers found that the whole system could easily crash and the FBI had no backup plan. “A bunch of us were planning on committing a crime spree the day they switched over,” a computer science professor who was on the review team told the Post.

After pulling the plug on Trilogy in January, 2005, the FBI started over with a different contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp. Its new system, called Sentinel, is said to be on budget and schedule, but at $305 million dollars it is many times more expensive than what a similar project would cost in the private sector. We’re told this system will work some day. Keep your finger crossed.

There’s enough blame to go around. Why did the Republican Congress, which has abdicated oversight, settle for asking a few pointed questions, then call it a day when told to be patient? Why didn’t the White House ride herd on the computer upgrade until it was successfully completed? Why wasn’t Mueller fired?

The sad truth is that accountability in Washington is dead. We won’t get it back until we throw out those responsible. Let’s hope it’s not too late.