Tech Vs. Terrorism

The FBI stumbled badly in modernizing its IT to help fight terrorism. Here's how the bureau plans to get on track.

Larry Greenemeier, Contributor

June 3, 2005

7 Min Read

SAIC delivered its original Virtual Case File system in December 2003, though FBI executives believed even as it was being delivered it wouldn't meet their needs. Bureau officials concluded the system couldn't do actual case management and could only do certain basic functions like automate workflow, especially routing documents between staff and supervisors.

Doubts about the system grew to the point that the FBI in January 2004 created a separate data-sharing system, called the Investigative Data Warehouse. It provides more than 6,000 special agents, intelligence analysts, and members of joint terrorism task forces with a single access point to about 50 databases, including the FBI's primary legacy Automated Case Support case-management database, its Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File database, and various news feeds that provide English translations of major international news articles.

The system let agents for the first time use analytical tools across data sources to create a more complete view of the bureau's treasure chest of data. The FBI also imported more than 60% of the data from its legacy systems to the data warehouse. But even this successful effort was colored by the looming failure of Virtual Case File. The Investigative Data Warehouse "was a risk-mitigation strategy knowing that our case-management system, or VCF, was going to be late," Azmi says.

The final verdict on the Virtual Case File system? The bureau spent another $2 million this year to have Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit contractor, assess the system, and it concluded the FBI should cut its losses and start over with commercial products. The FBI also had several hundred users at three locations test the system's document-routing capabilities in a way that let the bureau know just how much of its IT investment might be salvaged. Mueller estimates that $104.5 million of the $170 million investment in the Virtual Case File system is considered "a loss." The networking and hardware equipment can be repurposed as part of Sentinel.

So how can Sentinel succeed where past efforts failed? One factor is that Mueller appears to have found a CIO he can work with.

When Mueller took the reins, the FBI didn't have a CIO position. By November 2001, the position was created and filled by former IBM executive Bob Dies, who retired in May 2002. Mark Tanner served as acting CIO over the next three months, until the bureau gave its top IT job to Darwin John, former managing director of information and communications systems worldwide for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. John lasted less than a year. In May 2003, Wilson Lowery, a 30-year veteran of IBM and former chairman of IBM Credit Corp. and general manager of IBM Global Financing, took over as the FBI's CIO. Lowery originally joined the bureau in June 2002 as Mueller's special assistant in charge of overseeing a reengineering effort that looked at, among other things, how the FBI used technology and how it collaborated with other agencies. By December 2003, Lowery likewise moved on.

Finding himself once again without a top IT executive, Mueller looked to his days as U.S. attorney in San Francisco when he'd had occasion to work with Azmi, who at the time was CIO for the Executive Office for United States Attorneys. The two former Marines had designed and created a reporting tool called Alcatraz for Mueller's office. Azmi had pulled off a successful tech turnaround at the U.S. Attorneys' Office, building a Trilogy-like infrastructure project called the Justice Consolidated Office Network, as well as a victim-notification system and enterprise case-management system. Azmi's history with Mueller has inspired a new level of confidence in the CIO position. "I am a CIO who has a chair at the table, discussing the mission of this organization," Azmi says.

Azmi has been given the power to consolidate IT budgets, develop an IT architecture, and create a system of checks and balances designed to keep projects on schedule and on budget. The IT architecture identifies all of the FBI's IT systems, applications, networks, and databases on a master list. Azmi also organized an enterprise architecture unit that includes chief enterprise architect Wayne Shiveley, who in April completed the first version of the bureau's enterprise architecture--something mandated for all federal agencies. All future IT projects must be consistent with Shiveley's architecture plan.

Another approach the FBI has taken to improve IT management is its Life Cycle Management Directive, which governs how projects are managed from their inception. The goal is to centralize IT assessment, using seven "gates," or review points, that serve as the mechanism for management control and direction, decision making, coordination, and confirmation of successful performance. "Do the money and the time match? Are we at our performance goals? You have a measuring tool now," Azmi says. "Anytime it deviates 10% or more, that's when we bring in project management." The bureau is evaluating the health of all 479 of its IT projects in order to provide data that will help FBI managers understand the costs, schedules, and risks associated with each project.

Given all of the scrutiny following the Virtual Case File system, one legacy will most certainly include shorter, better-managed contracts. "One of the things we don't want to do is another giant contract of four years," Azmi says. "It just doesn't make any sense."

The importance of the FBI's revitalized approach to IT management can't be underestimated, one former FBI agent says. The past missions of the bureau and the U.S. intelligence community didn't prepare it for a war on terrorism that requires tracking individuals and small groups and making connections among them. "The amount of data and our ability to deal with it has never been tested like this," he says. Nevertheless, the FBI knows now that it's in the information business. As such, the former agent says, "If you don't make IT the core of your business processes, you're not going to succeed."

No one knows this more than Azmi, who has seen firsthand the cost of failed IT projects, in terms of time and money. In some ways, the Virtual Case File system was a victim of the bureau's haste to make up for lost time. "There's a lot of preparation that's going on in Sentinel that didn't go into VCF because we were: 9/11, let's get it done," he says, snapping his fingers quickly three times. While the sense of urgency is still there, "the key now is to do a proper transition from the legacy system to the new system."

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