FBI: Cold Case Files

FBI Director Robert Mueller sat in the witness chair in front of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Capitol Hill—head bowed, hands folded on the table in front of him. He’d been summoned to explain why the FBI’s half-billion-dollar Trilogy project is over budget and unfinished, with no deadline in sight, after four years of work.

“I don’t know anybody who’s been more supportive in the 30 years I’ve been here of the FBI than I have,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, glaring at Mueller at the Feb. 3 hearing. “And I’ve also been supportive of you. But you know, I’m ready to tear out what little hair I have left.”

Trilogy was supposed to replace the FBI’s antiquated investigative software applications beginning with the Automated Case Support (ACS) system, which allows agents to manage records including cases online. The old system, which dates back to 1995, has its limits. For example, it lacks a modern graphical interface, and information, once entered, cannot be updated or changed.

Plans for the new system, known as the Virtual Case File (VCF), call for the FBI to have a secure, paperless and completely new case management system that would make the same case information available to any FBI agent in any office. Agents could also use the system to make correlations between cases and to track statistics, such as investigative leads resulting in convictions or arrests.

Virtual case files would likely save lives, the project backers say, if they ever materialize. For example, the FBI might have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks if it could have consolidated the information its field offices were gathering on Islamic men going to flight school and investigated their links to Osama bin Laden.

And lives were lost after former agent Robert Hanssen broke into ACS in November 2000 to steal documents that he passed to the Russians. Hanssen found unrestricted descriptions of restricted documents in ACS. He then retrieved the off-limits documents by writing queries to circumvent “stop words” that the FBI search engine had been instructed not to find. Several of the more than 50 FBI sources whose identities Hanssen exposed were subsequently imprisoned or executed.

The FBI did complete two-thirds of the Trilogy project with the installation of networked PCs, printers and scanners throughout the bureau in April 2004, 22 months late.

The last third of Trilogy—the Virtual Case File—is more than 15 months late, with no completion date in sight. The project was so poorly managed that 90% of its software code may be unusable. The FBI is scheduled to decide what to do by April 30.

So far, the FBI has spent $581.1 million for the Trilogy project, some $201.3 million more than originally budgeted. Of that total, Mueller has said the FBI invested $170 million to replace the Automated Case Support system, and must write off $104 million as a loss.

Meanwhile, agents continue to prepare paper records rather than enter them into the computer, then pass them around offices instead of getting electronic approvals, before loading them into ACS.

Mueller, 60, has handled some tough jobs in the course of his career. He presided over one of the biggest reorganizations in the FBI’s history after 9/11, when the agency shifted its focus from investigating criminals to fighting terrorism, even though he had started the director’s job only a week before the attacks. He is no stranger to computers. In the late 1990s, as the U.S. Attorney in Northern California, he founded the nation’s first Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property unit to help the Department of Justice prosecute cybercrime.

But Trilogy has been a painful lesson for Mueller in how not to handle a big technology project. “One of the things … that I think backfired on us was to push hard after 9/11 to get the technology on as fast as possible without fully understanding the detrimental side effects of pushing too hard,” he told the senators.

Unfortunately, the bureau’s problems are not unusual, says Bob Suh, a technology strategist for Accenture. Of 150 government agencies and Fortune 1000 companies that Accenture surveyed, less than half set up their information-technology projects as full-time activities or conducted post-mortems when the projects were done.

“Organizations don’t learn from their failures,” Suh says. “And so they don’t move forward.”

What could the FBI have done differently? And how can your organization, when it undertakes a new project, avoid finding itself in a debacle like the FBI’s? Baseline talked to several experts to find out.