FBI scuttles US$170M system for managing investigations

Virtual Case File supposed to be operational by the end of 2003 but still doesn't go

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has officially scrapped a troubled US$170 million IT project in which it was developing a new case-management system designed partly to help its agents investigate terrorism. The agency expects that it will take more than three years to implement a replacement system.

FBI Director Robert Mueller announced during testimony before a subcommittee of the US House Appropriations Committee last week that the Virtual Case File system is being shelved. The fate of the 4-year-old project had been in doubt since January, when the FBI said it was looking at alternative approaches.

"I am disappointed that we did not come through with Virtual Case File," Mueller told the House subcommittee. But he added that he sees the decision as an opportunity to develop a more up-to-date system that will use mostly off-the-shelf software and let FBI agents share information about cases more easily.

An FBI official who asked that she not be identified says the agency has already begun evaluating commercial products to see if they fit its IT needs. She says FBI officials expect to complete the evaluation and set "a more firm direction" by late this month.

The House Appropriations Committee said it's opening a formal investigation into why the Virtual Case File project failed. Last month, a US Department of Justice audit criticised the FBI's efforts to develop the system, which was supposed to replace an antiquated system, according to the audit.

The Virtual Case File software was commissioned from San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. in mid-2001 and was originally due to be deployed by the end of 2003. But development was delayed, and SAIC didn't deliver an initial version of the system until last December.

In addition to evaluating off-the-shelf software, the FBI is conducting a prototype test of SAIC's most recent software delivery, according to the agency official who asked to remain anonymous. The technology that was presented to the FBI by SAIC wasn't meeting the requirements that had been set forth, "so we needed to evaluate what they had given us as far as user capability and usability," she says.

SAIC spokesman Jared Adams argued that the FBI hasn't formally killed off the Virtual Case File project and pointed to the ongoing tests as proof that a final decision has not yet been made. "When the tests are done at the end of March, I think then a decision will be made," he says.

But the FBI official said the agency is incorporating lessons learned from the failed project and moving forward. For instance, the agency has created an enterprise architecture with overarching standards for both custom and packaged applications.

Mueller says the new case management system, which won't be called Virtual Case File, will be installed in four phases and should take approximately 39 months to complete. He declined to estimate how much the system will cost.

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