The LA Times reports that a $581 million effort to upgrade the electronic files for use by FBI agents, called Virtual Case File (VCF), is so hopelessly inadequate that it may need to be scrapped. It has been known for years that -- contrary to what you may see on 24 -- the computing capabilities of the Bureau are very 1984 not in the Orwell sense but the 5.25" floppy disk sense. This was an area of particular concern identified in the 9/11 Commission's report.
VCF is connected with an upgrade known as Trilogy, only one part of which -- an "automated workflow manager" according to Computerworld -- was on target for deployment. The program, which is now being investigated by the GAO at the request of the House Judiciary Committee, was begun in the late 1990s, but overhauled in 2002, according to Government Computer News. While it appears to have been beset with design flaws from the very start, the FBI's conception of the costs and challenges were fundamentally naive. From Computerworld:
For example, according to the NRC study, the VCF system was developed without the benefit of prototyping and testing. In addition, the bureau had no contingency plan in place for handling "mission disruptive failures" that could stem from the bureau's planned "flash cutover" from the old system to the VCF system.
The FBI, according to reports, thought that they could make up for years of IT neglect by getting the whole thing right the first time.
Excuse me, did they ever try using Windows 1.0? Word 1.0? And I'm sorry Mac people, but the first Macintoshes -- while pretty to look at compared to PCs back then -- were finicky in the extreme. And those are just simple desktop software issues, a far cry from what VCF is trying to accomplish.
These are problems the Bureau has been made aware of for a year now, as you can see from a series of articles in Federal Computer Week, though only now has reached such a crisis that they feel the need to reassess their approach. So now they are going back to the drawing board and calling in consultants to see what, if anything, they can salvage from the half billion dollars sunk so far. The idea that they may need to write a new software package from scratch is not all that far fetched. On the bright side, according to Government Computer News, "GAO has found that VCF has good system documentation." Score one for the gearheads!
If you wonder why the FBI continues to bungle terrorist investigations, and so feels the need to trample on our civil rights in order to compensate, here's part of the answer.