Senators fume as FBI admits Trilogy foul-ups

After years of touting its Virtual Case File system as the pinnacle of case management software, the FBI Thursday told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary that the project probably has failed, and the bureau has wasted $104 million.

The hearing featured tense exchanges between FBI Director Robert Mueller, committee chairman Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.

Mueller took some of the responsibility for the VCF debacle. He attempted to assign the rest of the blame to vendor Science Applications International Corp., which strongly defends its work.

Gregg adjourned the hearing before the subcommittee could hear testimony from SAIC executives and two organizations that unveiled detailed and damning reports on the project: the Justice Department's Inspector General Office and FBI contractor Aerospace Corp.

"I wish this hearing was not being held, and I know the director wishes this hearing was not being held," Gregg said. "My disappointment with the extreme waste of taxpayer dollars ? over $100 million ? is surpassed only by my frustration over the fact that we now do not know when the FBI will have this critical case management system in place."

Gregg added, "This could be a systemic issue across agencies. Maybe we should have an independent executive team with expertise [to oversee systems projects] that is consistent and technologically current. Is the FBI ever going to get out of the trees and be able to look at the forest?"

Mueller and FBI CIO Zalmai Azmi said the agency now is evaluating the results of a VCF pilot known as VCF Initial Operational Capability. Mueller said the results of that evaluation would be available in two months.

Leahy confronted Mueller forcefully, saying: "Apoplectic would be too mild a description of my reaction to the unraveling of the Trilogy project ? or the 'Tragedy' project, as some FBI agents have taken to calling it."

Leahy noted that recovering from the VCF debacle will cost more money, "but throwing money at this chronic problem alone will not fix it. The FBI must stop hiding its problems and begin confronting them," he said.

Leahy expressed frustration that "we don't find out [about systems problems] until we read about it in the newspapers. Are there other clouds on the horizon, before we read about it in the newspaper?"

Mueller responded "We are now looking at an issue that does not relate to a classified issue but I should raise it to you in private."

In a particularly tense exchange, Leahy cited Mueller's testimony from a hearing before the same subcommittee last year in which Mueller said the bureau had identified and resolved cost and schedule problems with VCF.

"We now know that in May 2004, the FBI knew that VCF was on life support," Leahy told Mueller. "Just a day before the hearing, in which we got a rosy scenario, we know that the FBI had asked what the cost would be of shutting down 90 percent of it."

The balding Leahy continued, "I am ready to tear out the rest of my hair. Why didn't you mention any of these problems when you were asked in May 2004?" he said. "The answers we were given did not comport with the facts. Somebody's got to bear responsibility. When are we going to get the answers?"

The Justice Department's IG Thursday contributed to the analysis of the Trilogy problems with a report stating that FBI plans to replace the failed Virtual Case File case management project by issuing a contract for a new system in April.

Mueller responded to the IG report in a statement expressing his disappointment with the bureau's failure to fully deploy VCF but stating that the bureau is moving in the right direction. "We have made substantial system technology improvements, which directly support our counterterrorism mission and continue to safeguard our nation."

Mueller's statement cited previously released information about the bureau's IT upgrades, including the deployment of the Information Data Warehouse and the FBI Intelligence Reports Dissemination System. But he did not mention the FBI's plans to build a replacement for VCF that would be called the Federal Investigative Case Management System.

As GCN first reported in late December, the IG's report cited several reasons for the failure of the VCF project, including:

?VCF design modifications made as a result of the bureau's shift from criminal investigations to preventing terrorism, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks

?Poor management decisions early in the project

?Inadequate project oversight

?A lack of sound IT investment practices.

The FICMS project will involve several agencies in the task of creating a multi-agency case management system, with the FBI taking the lead as executive agent.

"The FBI believes this will provide a blueprint to guide the FBI in eventually acquiring the capabilities that the current VCF effort has been unable to accomplish and facilitate interagency information sharing," the IG report stated.

"Working with officials at the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, the FBI expects to enter into a contract by April 30, 2005, with a vendor to develop the framework for an interagency case management system for law enforcement components of the two participating departments, including the FBI." The bureau plans to use commercial technology for FICMS, according to the report.

The IG report added that until the bureau enters into the FICMS contract, it will not know for sure the proposed schedule and cost for replacing the FBI's antiquated case management system, known as Automated Case File.

"Further, any system resulting from the FICMS effort is unlikely to benefit substantially from the three years and $170 million already devoted to the VCF effort because of technological advances since the FBI began the Trilogy project in 2001 and because of the FBI's current planned approach to adapt off-the-shelf systems to meet its case management requirements," the report stated.

Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego earlier this week said that the FBI could speed its progress toward deployment of a modern case management system that uses commercial software by completing the VCF project.

Mueller and Azmi cited Aerospace's critical report on SAIC's work as one of the factors in their evaluation of VCF. But Arnold L. Punaro, SAIC's executive vice president, said in testimony that he was not allowed to present to the hearing that Aerospace Corp. "produced a report on the wrong software while failing to concentrate on central issues that determine system performance."

SAIC officials hold that Aerospace Corp. evaluated an early version of the VCF software that did not resemble the final product the FBI accepted in December. Punaro added in his written testimony that "Aerospace Corp. did not bring a sufficient understanding of the uniqueness, complexity and scope of the FBI undertaking to evaluate our product.

"I think there is a lot of misinformation" about the VCF project, Punaro told reporters after the hearing. He said it was "regrettable" that SAIC was subject to more than an hour of criticism in testimony without getting a chance to make its case.

He noted that "there was never any baseline on this project" and rejected Azmi's statement that VCF-IOC comprises only one-tenth of the capabilities of the complete system.

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