FBI Urged to Scrap Computer Overhaul

Lawmakers criticized FBI Director Robert Mueller (search) on Thursday for continued problems with a costly computer project that was supposed to dramatically improve management of terrorism and other criminal cases.

Mueller acknowledged he does not yet know how much the FBI's Virtual Case File (search) will cost beyond the $170 million already budgeted and largely spent, or when FBI agents and analysts will have it on their computers.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mueller made improvement of the agency's computer systems a priority. Members of Congress and the independent Sept. 11 commission said the overhaul was critical to enabling the FBI (search) and intelligence agencies to "connect the dots" in preventing attacks.

But at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Mueller acknowledged an agent with information to share still "faces a cumbersome, time-consuming process" to put it in an FBI database.

His remarks came the same day Justice Department inspector general Glenn Fine released a report that blamed planning failures and management weaknesses for many of the project's problems.

"Further, we are not confident that the FBI has a firm sense of how much longer and how much more it will cost to develop and deploy a usable system," Fine said in a statement to the committee.

Mueller said he would have a better idea about costs and a timetable in two months, after the FBI evaluates a test of a slimmed-down version of the Virtual Case File that is being run in the agency's New Orleans office. He said it is possible the entire system, designed by Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) of San Diego, is so inadequate and outdated that one will have to be built from scratch.

Mueller's work since the Sept. 11 attacks has been widely applauded by lawmakers, but senators took him to task over the Virtual Case File. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., called the project a "catastrophic failure."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked Mueller why he told senators last May that the project would be delivered by the end of 2004, even after some people in the FBI were already aware it was troubled. "The answers we got didn't comport with the facts," Leahy said.

Mueller said he accepted some of the blame for the problems with the Virtual Case File. "It was my expectation we'd have a substantial portion of VCF by the end of the year," he said, an explanation that didn't satisfy Leahy.

SAIC shared the blame, he said, adding that the FBI has asked the Justice Department to help determine how much money the government might be able to recover from the company. Mueller said the potential loss to taxpayers is about $105 million because the bureau has received $53 million in computer hardware and software; $12 million more remains unspent.

SAIC officials disputed that the system is a failure. Mark Hughes, president of SAIC's system and network solutions group, defended his company's work and blamed turnover at the FBI and design changes demanded by the agency for most of the problems.

Hughes urged the FBI not to abandon Virtual Case File. "If they don't deploy the system and build a new one, they're going to have to wait at least three years before agents get any capability," he said.

Virtual Case File was to be the final piece of the overhaul of antiquated FBI computers, called the Trilogy project. The first two phases of the project — deployment of a high-speed, secure FBI computer network and 30,000 new desktop computers — have been completed.