A Q&A with the FBI's data czar
I told the director, I said, if they [SAIC] pull it offwith a big "if"if they pull it off, he's going to have one of the best case-management systems that the organization has seen. And he goeshe asked me, he says, "Why are you saying 'if'?"
Zalmai "Zal" Azmi, chief information officer, FBI
Feb. 14, 2005
Last February, the FBI's chief information officer sat down with Chitra Ragavan, chief legal affairs correspondent for U.S.News & World Report, to discuss the bureau's efforts to transform its antiquated computer systems. The bureau's technology woes have been blamed in part for its failure to detect or prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Azmi described in detail how the FBI's ambitious $170 million case-management software development project, known as Virtual Case File (VCF), ended in a costly debacle. Mueller has told Congress that taxpayers will take a $104 million bite from the VCF collapse [FBI disputes U.S.News cost estimates (6/8/05)]. Among other things, Azmi said that the contractorScience Applications International Corporationfailed to design a system that gave the FBI the security measures it needed to compartmentalize case information. Azmi blamed SAIC for planning what he thought was an overly ambitious, all-at-once transition called Flash Cut Over from the old "legacy" Automated Case Support system (ACS) to the new VCF system, rather than phasing in the transition of tens of millions of documents. He also blamed SAIC for "fast-tracking" the project to such an extent that it created "silos" of information that could not interconnect. SAIC has said it was the FBI's desire to fast-track the project that contributed to VCF's collapse. Azmi also described how the FBI found 400 bugs in the VCF software and discussed the problems with SAICa contention that runs contrary to a recently released Congressional report that said the FBI never shared the bugs with SAIC. Azmi said that FBI director Robert Mueller knew for sure in May 2004 that the VCF system was a failure. However, Mueller did not publicly acknowledge to Congress until this Februarynine months laterthat he was pulling the plug on VCF. By then the bureau had proffered hundreds of optimistic briefings to members of Congress and their staffs. Mueller also urged his 56 field-office bosses to train their agents in VCF despite knowing that the system was on life support. When they tried to take the tutorial, the program kept crashing.
Here are excerpts from the U.S.News & World Report interview with Azmi.
Q: When you came to the FBI, what was the status of Virtual Case File?
A: I think it was end of November  or beginning of December, I met with SAIC to actually get a demo of their VCF Application . . . And they had said it was going to be ready for deployment, full deployment by Dec. 17, 2003. My impression was that if you really pull it off, I'll be very surprised.
Q: You told them that?
A: Yeah. We had that discussion. Cause . . . the program was very large, I mean the data migration . . . You had specific questions, on how do you migrate the data from one system to the new system. On how you handle security. And . . . really nobody could answer that question. I said, you're building your software in eight silos, how are you going to integrate the eight silos, and there was not a clear answer for that, who was in charge of consolidation. And I think that that's one thing they're [SAIC] saying . . . because they wanted to fast-track everything, they brought eight teams of software developers to develop VCF, as a result they had a code overlap , what we call it because everybody was developing their own solution.