FBI's troubled case-file costs soar
For months now, FBI Director Robert Mueller has been struggling to contain the damage from the bureau's failed efforts to create a computerized case-management system. In March, Mueller finally officially pulled the plug on the software package known as Virtual Case File, at a reported cost of $104 million. The Virtual Case File saga has already been a major public relations and financial disaster for the bureau, but U.S. News has learned that it may get worsemore than seven times worse.
Mueller's goal had been to allow FBI agents in the 56 field offices, hundreds of smaller regional offices, and dozens of liaison offices at U.S. embassies abroad to store and share case information and efficiently search government databases. But Mueller said in February that the software package designed by Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC)four years in the making and plagued by delays and cost overrunswas already outdated and would not fulfill his ambitious goal of replacing the bureau's antiquated paper-based records management system.
Mueller told angry and surprised congressional overseerswho had received literally hundreds of optimistic briefings from FBI officials about VCFthat of the $170 million budgeted for the project, taxpayers would absorb an estimated loss of $104 million as a result of its demise. The balance of the funds, Mueller said, was either unspent or used to purchase hardware that could be adapted to future applications.
But U.S. News has learned that the ultimate cost of the VCF catastrophe may be much higher. In a series of recent planning meetings for the fiscal 2007 budget, FBI officials in the bureau's information technology divisionheaded by Zalmai Azmihave estimated that the cost of creating a successful new case-management system is $792 million. Those officials have also concluded that the bulk of the VCF hardwarewhich Mueller told Congress could be reusedwill quickly become obsolete. "It's mostly lost," one FBI official says.
At one of the budget planning meetings, on April 25, sources say, three of Azmi's deputiesSanjeev "Sonny" Bhagowalia, Dean Hall, and Jerome "Jack" Israelreported that the bureau would essentially have to start its quest for a new system from scratch; they also listed requirements for the new system. When Joseph Ford, the head of the bureau's finance division, added up the tab, it totaled $792 millionand created quite a sticker shock in the meeting. Sources say Ford responded in consternation that the figure was unacceptable. The Justice Department, Ford warned Azmi's people, would kill that budget request in a heartbeat because of the furor it would create.
For Mueller, the whole effort has been a nightmare. The director stuck with the VCF project despite early indications that the software was designed in such a way as to be totally incompatible with the agents' investigative and analytical needs. Mueller and deputy Bruce Gebhardt exhorted field office bosses to train their agents on VCF in the face of clear evidence that the project was on life support. U.S. News has learned that when agents began taking the tutorials, the program kept crashing.
A recent report by the House Appropriations Committee's surveys and investigations staff [Related PDF] concluded that the FBI could have cut its losses early in the game, but forged ahead for two more years, despite having identified 400 glitches with early versions of the softwareglitches it never resolved with the contractor. There were 10 different VCF project managers, who changed the contract 36 times, during the lifespan of the ill-fated software development.