By Deborah Gage  |  Posted 2005-04-06 Email Print this article Print

The federal agency stumbled in its attempt to trade a paper-based filing system for an electronic one. Experts offer tips on how the agency can regain its balance.

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Hurdle No. 1

Trilogy is more than 15 months past deadline and $201.3 million over budget. The total cost and final deadline are still unknown.

The fix: Know what you want the project to accomplish before you begin. But, if you failed to do that, don't panic.

The FBI was in a rush to get Trilogy up and running, especially after May 2001. That's when the Justice Department revealed that the bureau's document management system was so disorganized that the department found over 3,000 pages of evidence that were never disclosed to Timothy McVeigh's attorneys. McVeigh had already been sentenced to death for blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Former FBI agent David J. Williams, who's now with Booz Allen Hamilton, remembers agents looking through car trunks and behind desks and drawers for any papers related to that case. As a result, McVeigh's execution was delayed by a month.

On June 12, 2001 the FBI awarded a contract to Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) for the software portion of Trilogy. But the project was still so loosely defined—adding new document-handling functions in response to McVeigh, for example—that the bureau agreed to a "cost-plus contract" that paid for hours worked rather than results accomplished.

Mueller called that first contract with SAIC "horrific" and told the Senate subcommittee that the vendor had led the bureau astray. According to testimony given in 2004 by the Department of Justice's Inspector General, Glenn Fine, the contract had no milestones for completion, points for review or penalties if work was not done. SAIC could also cease work if the FBI did not reimburse its costs, Fine had told the senators.

SAIC defends the contract. "If you can't nail down the requirements, it's very difficult to get anybody to agree to a fixed price because they don't know what you want them to deliver," notes Rick Reynolds, an SAIC operations manager who is now working on Trilogy.

Horrific or not, the expensive contract didn't stop the FBI from redesigning Trilogy after 9/11. Rather than merely Web-enable ACS, the FBI now wanted to replace it with the Virtual Case File, creating a modern case management system with information on both criminals and terrorists.

The need for new software was obvious. Williams remembers being called to FBI headquarters shortly after 9/11 to help with intelligence. There he joined a roomful of agents who were sliding their chairs back and forth among 20 green-screen computer terminals. Almost every terminal was attached to a different database. Some of the data the agents needed was at the organized-crime terminal, some at evidence handling, some at intelligence. "We wore out the casters on our chairs," Williams recalls.

Deadlines for both the hardware and software portions of Trilogy vacillated wildly as the FBI tried to speed up the project and found it too complicated. By the fall of 2003, SAIC had assigned the equivalent of 250 full-time employees to Trilogy. Eight teams of developers were working in parallel trying to replace the Automated Case Support system with the Virtual Case File, a situation that the contractor now acknowledges led to "duplication of effort" and "less than uniform code."

The bureau claimed to have found 400 flaws in VCF. In April 2004, after SAIC agreed to get VCF fixed in a year for another $56 million, the FBI came up with a new plan.

Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.


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