FBI Computer Upgrades Fall Short

The FBI's nearly $600 million effort to modernize its antiquated computer systems to help prevent terrorist attacks is "not on a path to success," according to an outside review completed weeks after the bureau director gave Congress assurances about the program.

The report by technology experts for the National Research Council found that the FBI's "Trilogy" project doesn't adequately reflect the agency's new priority on terrorism prevention since the Sept. 11 attacks. It urged the bureau to build new systems from scratch to help in this role.

The report was being circulated this week to senior FBI officials and some members of Congress in advance of its public release next week. The Associated Press obtained a copy.

The study by the council, a nonprofit research board operating under the National Academies of Science, concluded that even ongoing improvements to the bureau's computerized system for tracking criminal cases won't help. It cited "significant differences ... between systems supporting investigation and those supporting intelligence."

It suggested that the system for tracking criminal cases could later be plugged into a new anti-terrorism system. The case-tracking system, known as the Virtual Case File, "is not now and unlikely to be an adequate tool for counterterrorism analysis because (it) was designed with criminal investigation requirements in mind," the report's authors wrote.

The FBI responded in a statement Monday that Director Robert Mueller "understands that these capabilities are essential to our success in the war on terrorism and he has made them a top priority." It cited several examples in which agents using some parts of the new system in terrorism investigations performed millions of information searches in days rather than the months it would have taken using old FBI tools.

The council's criticisms are the latest over the slow pace of the massive project, launched in November 2000 with an estimated $380 million price tag and a completion date of 2003. The price tag now approaches $600 million and, while some components are operating already, the system's most important parts won't be ready until year's end.

The council's report, completed at the FBI's request, concluded that the bureau has made important progress in the past year. But it also describes the FBI's efforts and results as "late and limited" and said its upgrade programs "fall far short of what is required."

The report comes just weeks after Mueller asked for $20 million more for the project and assured a Senate budget committee, "We are now on the right track, and we are closing in on the goal of completion."

The FBI noted Monday that the council's report only covered the period until March. "While the report is accurate and its findings helpful, it does not reflect the significant progress made under the FBI's new chief information officer," the agency said.

The report pointedly criticized plans to allow agents to begin using the Virtual Case File, a system aimed at letting investigators anywhere in the world quickly share information, before it has been rigorously field-tested.

The council called that "highly risky" and "nearly guaranteed to cause mission-critical failures and further delays." It recommended delaying the FBI-wide rollout for more testing and leaving the old system in place until it can be safely turned off.

The FBI said the system probably "will be deployed in phases that will ease the transition for FBI employees, allow us to test and improve it and mitigate risks."

The FBI's new chief information officer, Zalmai Azmi, told reporters last week that some version of the Virtual Case File will be in place by the end of the year. Azmi, who took over the job Friday, said the FBI was renegotiating parts of its contract with Science Applications International Corp., one of its primary contractors.

By Ted Bridis