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Blind Sentinel

System Failure at the FBI

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

The computer is no better than its program.

— E.E. Morison, Men, Machines and Modern Times

"It’s just a simple waste of taxpayer money.” Few would disagree with Senator Charles Grassley when he uttered those words a few days ago although reading them conjures up dozens, if not hundreds, of governmental projects to which he might be referring. In this case he was referring to computers and the FBI. On March 18, 2010 we learned that things were not going as well in overhauling the FBI’s computers as we had hoped in 2001, 2005 and 2006.

After 9/11 the FBI knew it needed to improve communication among agents and offices. At the time of 9/11 photos of the suspected 9/11 highjackers that agents in Florida wanted to send to Washington were sent by overnight mail since the photos could not be sent as attachments to e-mails. The FBI, an agency that prides itself on identifying and then solving problems, realized this was a problem needing solving and, accordingly, commissioned a computer overhaul that would, among other things, permit agents to obtain “instant access to FBI databases allowing speedier investigations and better integration of information. . . .”

The project was called “Virtual Case File” (VCF). It was greeted enthusiastically but then a sad thing happened. In 2005, after $170 million had been spent, it was disclosed that the project had not proceeded as hoped. Describing the program’s lack of success, Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called it a “train wreck in slow motion, at a cost of $170 million to American taxpayers and unknown cost to public safety.” Daunted but not without resourcefulness, the FBI spent $2 million to hire an expert who could tell it whether any part of the program was salvageable. (It was a bit of a surprise that among the recipients of the misspent $170 million there was no expert who could answer that question. The absence of such an expert may help explain why the program was a failure). The expert concluded that VCF should be abandoned. VCF was replaced by a new project called “Sentinel”. The name, if not past experience, gave hope since it suggested something alert that was designed to look out for our well-being.

Sentinel’s projected cost was $425 million and its completion date was 2009. In 2006 the FBI encountered financial problems with Sentinel. The FBI said it needed $156.7 million for the new fiscal year but the administration only gave it $100 million. The FBI said it would be able to come up with the additional funds from sources within its budget. The Inspector General was skeptical although trying to put a happy face on the FBI’s promises that money could be found elsewhere, he said if it followed the processes it had established to manage the project we could have “reasonable assurance” that the project would be successful. Sen. Leahy was slightly less optimistic. Referring to the entire process of updating the FBI’s computer system he said: “mismanagement of this project seems to know no bounds.” He could not have known how prescient was that utterance.

In November 2009, one month before the end of the year and the promised date of completion, an audit by the FBI’s inspector general who had earlier referred to “reasonable assurances” disclosed that Sentinel would not be completed until June 2010. According to Information Week Government, The FBI let it be known that it had suspended work on parts of Sentinel. The date of completion for the overhaul that had already been moved from the end of 2009 to September 2010 was now projected to be in 2011. Its cost overruns are at $30 million and counting.

According to a report in the New York Times, FBI officials explained the delay saying technical problems caused the agency to quit working on the third and fourth phases of Sentinel. Those are the parts of the project that permit agents to “better navigate investigative file, search databases and communicate with one another.”

When VCF was declared a failure in 2006, a senior FBI official who declined to be identified, briefed reporters. He said he’d not gotten what he envisioned from the project (which seems like a bit of an understatement when you’re talking about a $170 million mistake). He said, however, that the FBI “had a better understanding of its computer needs and limitations as a result of the project.” According to FBI officials who were discussing the most recent suspension of the work on Sentinel in 2010, the suspension “reflected the lessons learned from previous setbacks.” One can only hope that Sentinel quits being a demonstration of lessons learned from past failures and instead begins doing what its name implies.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

 

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