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Scientists Fault FBI's Computer System Upgrade

Software to combat terrorism is not up to the task and should be junked, panel says.

May 12, 2004|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The critical software central to a massive upgrade of the FBI's computer system fails to support the bureau's new counterterrorism mission and should be redesigned, a panel of scientists said Tuesday.

The criticism is in a report by a committee affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, which was invited by the FBI to review the progress of a $600-million upgrade of the bureau's aging computer network.

Conceived more than a year before the Sept. 11, attacks, the project, known as Trilogy, had been rife with cost overruns and delays and had drawn scrutiny from members of Congress and others.

The FBI said it hoped to complete installation of the system by year's end.

The report criticizes FBI officials for lack of oversight and expresses concern that the modernization program is "not currently on a path to success."

The authors said the FBI had not adequately tested the Virtual Case File, a program considered the guts of the new network, and they raised the possibility of "mission-disruptive failures" when it was deployed later this year.

They said they were concerned that the software was geared toward helping criminal investigators, not analysts divining intelligence about potential terrorist threats.

The system "does not deal effectively with what is now their primary goal," said James C. McGroddy, a former senior vice president for research at IBM Corp., who acted as chairman of the Trilogy study committee.

One problem, McGroddy said, was that the software was conceptualized before the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon -- and before intelligence and counterterrorism became the bureau's top priority.

The report urges that the bureau create special counterterrorism software "from scratch."

In a prepared statement, the bureau said it was studying some of the recommendations and had implemented others.

The FBI has been under intense pressure to update its computer systems. Investigators looking into the Sept. 11 attacks found that problems with the FBI's systems had prevented agents from sharing crucial intelligence that might have led the bureau to some of the 19 hijackers and possibly have averted the attacks.

But the effort to overhaul the computers has itself been troubled, suffering from a lack of high-tech leadership and vision as well as design and installation problems.

The General Accounting Office noted in March that the bureau had had five chief information officers in the last two years.

In its statement Tuesday, the bureau noted that it had recently named a permanent chief information officer to oversee its information-technology efforts.

The staff of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks said in a report last month that "basic connectivity" was still a problem for some FBI field offices.

It cited the example of an FBI field office director who could not send e-mail from his desk to his bosses at the Justice Department.

The bureau said the complaint was dated and that the e-mail problems had been addressed.

As part of the upgrade, the FBI has installed thousands of new desktop computers and high-speed communication networks, although a new case-management system has been delayed about a year.

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