[ISN] Who Killed the Virtual Case File?
isn at c4i.org
Sat Sep 10 00:27:35 EDT 2005
By Harry Goldstein
08 Sept 2005
In the early 1990s, Russian mobsters partnered with Italian Mafia
families in Newark, N.J., to skim millions of dollars in federal and
New Jersey state gasoline and diesel taxes. Special Agent Larry Depew
set up an undercover sting operation under the direction of Robert J.
Chiaradio, a supervisor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation's
Washington, D.C., headquarters.
Depew collected reams of evidence from wiretaps, interviews, and
financial transactions over the course of two and a half years.
Unfortunately, the FBI couldn't provide him with a database program
that would help organize the information, so Depew wrote one himself.
He used it to trace relationships between telephone calls, meetings,
surveillance, and interviews, but he could not import information from
other investigations that might shed light on his own. So it wasn't
until Depew mentioned the name of a suspect to a colleague that he
obtained a briefcase that his friend had been holding since 1989.
"When I opened it up, it was a treasure trove of information about
who's involved in the conspiracy, including the Gambino family, the
Genovese family, and the Russian components. It listed percentages of
who got what, when people were supposed to pay, the number of gallons.
It became a central piece of evidence," Depew recalled during an
interview at the FBI's New Jersey Regional Computer Forensic
Laboratory, in Hamilton, where he is the director. "Had I not just
picked up the phone and called that agent, I never would have gotten
A decade later, Depew's need to share information combined with his
do-it-yourself database skills and connection to his old supervisor,
Chiaradio, would land him a job managing his first IT project - the
FBI's Virtual Case File.
Depew's appointment to the FBI's VCF team was an auspicious start to
what would become the most highly publicized software failure in
history. The VCF was supposed to automate the FBI's paper-based work
environment, allow agents and intelligence analysts to share vital
investigative information, and replace the obsolete Automated Case
Support (ACS) system. Instead, the FBI claims, the VCF's contractor,
Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), in San Diego,
delivered 700 000 lines of code so bug-ridden and functionally off
target that this past April, the bureau had to scrap the US $170
million project, including $105 million worth of unusable code.
However, various government and independent reports show that the FBI
- lacking IT management and technical expertiseshares the blame for
the project's failure.
In a devastating 81-page audit, released in 2005, Glenn A. Fine, the
U.S. Department of Justice's inspector general, described eight
factors that contributed to the VCF's failure. Among them: poorly
defined and slowly evolving design requirements; overly ambitious
schedules; and the lack of a plan to guide hardware purchases, network
deployments, and software development for the bureau.
Fine concluded that four years after terrorists crashed jetliners into
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the FBI, which had been
criticized for not "connecting the dots" in time to prevent the
attacks, still did not have the software necessary to connect any new
dots that might come along. And won't for years to come.
"The archaic Automated Case Support system - which some agents have
avoided using - is cumbersome, inefficient, and limited in its
capabilities, and does not manage, link, research, analyze, and share
information as effectively or timely as needed," Fine wrote. "[T]he
continued delays in developing the VCF affect the FBI's ability to
carry out its critical missions."
This past May, a month after it officially ended the VCF project, the
FBI announced that it would buy off-the-shelf software at an
undisclosed cost to be deployed in phases over the next four years.
Until those systems are up and running, however, the FBI will rely on
essentially the same combination of paper records and antiquated
software that the failed VCF project was supposed to replace. The only
recent addition has been a new "investigative data warehouse" that
combines several of the FBI's crime and evidence databases into one.
It was completed as the VCF started its final slide into oblivion. In
addition, the FBI recently digitized millions of its paper documents
and made them available to agents.
As the FBI gears up to spend hundreds of millions more on software
over the next several years, questions persist as to how exactly the
VCF went so terribly wrong and whether a debacle of even bigger
proportions looms on the horizon. Despite high-profile Congressional
hearings, hundreds of pages of reports churned out by oversight
bodies, and countless anguished articles in the trade press and
mainstream media, the inner workings of the project and the major
players have remained largely invisible. Now, detailed interviews with
people directly involved with the VCF paint a picture of an enterprise
IT project that fell into the most basic traps of software
development, from poor planning to bad communication.
Lost amid the recriminations was an early warning from one member of
the development team that questioned the FBI's technical expertise,
SAIC's management practices, and the competence of both organizations.
Matthew Patton, a security expert working for SAIC, aired his
objections to his supervisor in the fall of 2002. He then posted his
concerns to a Web discussion board just before SAIC and the FBI agreed
on a deeply flawed 800-page set of system requirements that doomed the
project before a line of code was written. His reward: a visit from
two FBI agents concerned that he had disclosed national security
secrets on the Internet.
To understand why the VCF was so important, you've got to understand
the FBI. And to understand the FBI, you've got to understand its
organization and its agents. The bureau, headquartered in the J. Edgar
Hoover Building in Washington, D. C., currently has 23 divisions,
including counterintelligence, criminal investigation, and cybercrime.
The divisions fall under the control of five executive assistant
directors responsible for intelligence, counterterrorism and
counterintelligence, criminal investigations, law enforcement services
(such as labs and training), and administration. Until last year, each
division had its own IT budget and systems. And because divisions had
the freedom and money to develop their own software, the FBI now has
40 to 50 different investigative databases and applications, many
duplicating the functions and information found in others. Last year,
in an effort to centralize IT operations and eliminate needless
redundancies, the FBI's chief information officer, who reports to the
director, took charge of all its IT budgets and systems.
The bureau's 12 400 agents work out of 56 field offices and 400
satellite - or resident agencyoffices, as well as 51 Legal Attaché
offices scattered across the globe in U.S. embassies and consulates. A
field agent works as part of a squad; each squad has a supervisor, who
reports to the assistant special agent in charge, who in turn reports
to the special agent in charge of the field office. Agents investigate
everything from counterterrorism leads to bankruptcy fraud, online
child pornography rings to corrupt public officials, art thefts to
kidnappings. They interview witnesses, develop informants, conduct
surveillance, hunt for clues, and collaborate with local law
enforcement to find and arrest criminals. Agents document every step
and methodically build case files. They spend a tremendous amount of
time processing paperwork, faxing and FedEx-ing standardized memo and
requisition forms through the approval chain - up to the squad
supervisor and eventually to the special agent in charge. This system
of forms and approvals stretches back to the 1920s, when J. Edgar
Hoover, director from 1924 to 1972, standardized all of the bureau's
investigative reports on forms, so an agent could walk into any FBI
office and find the same system.
Today, the bureau has hundreds of standard forms. To record contact
with an informant, fill out Form FD-209. When getting married or
divorced, complete Form FD-292. To report information gleaned from an
interview that may later become testimony, use Form FD-302. To conduct
a wiretap, file Form FD-472. To wire an informant with a body recorder
and transmitter, submit Form FD-473. After traveling overseas for
business or pleasure, report the experience on Form FD-772. Plan an
arrest with Form FD-888. Open a drug investigation with Form FD-920.
Forms related to investigations, such as those used to report
interviews with witnesses, wend their way up and down the approval
chain. Once the appropriate supervisors sign off on the form, it goes
back to the agent, who gives it to a clerk to enter into the ACS
system. From there, the paper form is filed as part of the official
record of the case.
Sometimes, though the FBI officially denies this, an agent doesn't
enter all case notes into ACS. Some agents think, "If I don't trust
ACS because I don't think it will protect my informant or my asset,
I'm not putting the data in there," said Depew, an avid user of ACS
who touted the electronic system to his fellow agents as safer than a
paper filing system.
FBI spokesperson Megan Baroska emphasized in an e-mail that Depew did
not speak for the bureau in this instance. "The FBI policy is for all
official records to be entered into ACS. Additionally, 'notes' per say
[sic] are not entered into ACS; they are first memorialized in a 302
form, and that form is entered into ACS. As for the 'notes,' they are
kept in storage as a paper file because they legally have to be
When asked during an interview at FBI headquarters if agents felt
uncomfortable about exchanging a paper-based system for an electronic
one, the FBI's current CIO, Zalmai Azmi, didn't think agents would
find it hard to get into the habit of processing forms electronically.
But introducing an electronic record-keeping system does raise legal
policy questions in their minds. "What is a record and what is
available under discovery? In a paper world, you do your job, you do
your notes, and if you don't like it, it goes somewhere," Azmi said.
"In an electronic world, nothing really is destroyed; it's always
DESPITE AGENTS' RELUCTANCE to embrace the digital age, in 2000 the
bureau finally began to deal with its outdated IT systems. At the
time, under the direction of Louis J. Freeh, the bureau had neither a
CIO nor documentation detailing its IT systems, much less a plan for
revamping them. The task of creating such a plan fell to former IBM
executive Bob E. Dies, who became assistant director in charge of the
FBI Information Resources Division on 17 July 2000. He was the first
of five officials who, over the next four years, would struggle to
lead the FBI's sprawling and antiquated information systems and get
the VCF project under way.
According to a 2002 report from the DOJ's Office of the Inspector
General, when Dies arrived, 13,000 computers could not run modern
software. Most of the 400 resident agency offices were connected to
the FBI intranet with links about the speed of a 56-kilobit-per-second
modem. Many of the bureau's network components were no longer
manufactured or supported. And agents couldn't e-mail U.S. Attorney
offices, federal agencies, local law enforcement, or each other;
instead, they typically faxed case-related information.
In September 2000, Congress approved $379.8 million over three years
for what was then called the FBI Information Technology Upgrade
Project. Eventually divided into three parts, the program became known
as Trilogy. The Information Presentation Component would provide all
56 FBI field offices, some 22,000 agents and support staff, with new
Dell Pentium PCs running Microsoft Office, as well as new scanners,
printers, and servers. The Transportation Network Component would
provide secure local area and wide area networks, allowing agents to
share information with their supervisors and each other.
But the User Applications Component, which would ultimately become the
VCF, staked out the most ambitious goals. First, it was to make the
five most heavily used investigative applications - the Automated Case
Support system, IntelPlus, the Criminal Law Enforcement Application,
the Integrated Intelligence Information Application, and the Telephone
Application - accessible via a point-and-click Web interface. Next, it
would rebuild the FBI's intranet. Finally, it was supposed to identify
a way to replace the FBI's 40-odd investigative software applications,
Based on the 1970s-era database Adabas and written in a programming
language called Natural, both from Software AG, Darmstadt, Germany,
the Automated Case Support system, which debuted in 1995, was
antiquated even as it was deployed - and it is still being used today.
Originally, agents and clerks accessed the program via vintage IBM
3270 green-screen terminals connected to a mainframe over dedicated
lines. Eventually, the 3270 terminals were emulated on standard
desktop PCs. By navigating complicated menus using function keys and
keystroke commands, agents could do basic Boolean and keyword searches
for things like an informant's name or the dates of a wiretap
surveillance, information related to cases they were working. But
according to Depew, only the most dedicated, computer-savvy agents had
the skills and patience to learn the arcane system, let alone exploit
it to its full potential.
"Nobody really understood why we would even use ACS other than as an
index," said Depew. A notable exception: Robert Hanssen, the notorious
FBI traitor, used the system to find documents his Russian handlers
might find useful, as well as to check to see if anyone at the FBI was
onto him [see "Mission Impossible," IEEE Spectrum, April 2003].
In May and June 2001, the bureau awarded Trilogy contracts to two
major U.S. government contractors: DynCorp, of Reston, Va., for the
hardware and network projects, and to SAIC for software. All three
Trilogy components were to be delivered by the middle of 2004. Instead
of paying a fixed price for the hardware, networks, and software, the
FBI used cost-plus-award fee contracts. These would pay the cost of
all labor and materials plus additional money if the contractor
managed costs commendably. Crucially, if the scope of the project
expanded or if the contractor incurred other unforeseen costs, the FBI
would have to pick up those, too.
ON 4 SEPTEMBER 2001, Robert S. Mueller III became the tenth director
in FBI history. One week later, terrorists pulverized New York City's
World Trade Center and a piece of the Pentagon. The inability of FBI
agents to share the most basic information about Al Qaeda's U.S.
activities blew up into a front-page scandal. Within days, the FBI's
pathetic technology infrastructure went from being so much arcane
trivia to a subject of daily fulmination by politicians and newspaper
columnists. As The 9/11 Commission Report would conclude in 2004, "the
FBI's information systems were woefully inadequate. The FBI lacked the
ability to know what it knew; there was no effective mechanism for
capturing or sharing its institutional knowledge."
In the face of intense public and congressional pressure, Mueller
shifted Trilogy into high gear. In October, he pulled Chiaradio up
from his position as special agent in charge of the field office in
Tampa, Fla., to Hoover Building headquarters in Washington, to advise
him on the all-important software component of Trilogy. An accountant
by training, Chiaradio would become the FBI's executive assistant
director for administration in December 2001.
After discussions with Mueller, Chiaradio determined that the FBI's
basic plan for the software portion of Trilogy - slapping a Web
interface onto the ACS system and the four other programs - wasn't
going to make agents more effective. So to help him figure out what
would work, he brought in Depew. [See timeline, "Countdown to
Partial to dark suits and wraparound shades, Depew kept his gray hair
closely cropped and a pistol holstered on his belt. He was a G-man's
G-man. And he embraced technology with an almost evangelical zeal.
When he was working the New Jersey fuel oil case in the early 1990s,
Depew not only coded his own case management database using the FoxPro
program, but he put it on floppy disks and gave it to any agent who
asked for a copy.
Depew joined a team of seven that assessed the Web interface SAIC was
designing for the ACS system. When completed, the interface would let
agents point and click their way through the tedious process of
filling out official forms, but not much else. Recognizing the
limitations of the interface and ACS, Chiaradio and Depew met with
Dies. They convinced him, and later the director himself, that the
bureau needed an entirely new database, graphical user interface, and
applications, which would let agents search across various
investigations to find relationships to their own cases. The new case
management system would host millions of records containing
information on everything from witnesses, suspects, and informants to
evidence such as documents, photos, and audio recordings. To address
concerns being raised by intelligence experts and lawmakers in the
wake of 9/11, these records would be accessible to both the FBI's
agents and its intelligence analysts. Chiaradio dubbed the new system
the Virtual Case File.
Dies wanted to provide agents with this software as fast as possible.
In Depew's view that meant "shooting from the hip." This cavalier
approach to software development would prove fatal to the VCF. Today,
many organizations rely on a blueprint - known in IT parlance as an
enterprise architecture - to guide hardware and software investment
decisions. This blueprint describes at a high level an organization's
mission and operations, how it organizes and uses technology to
accomplish its tasks, and how the IT system is structured and designed
to achieve those objectives. Besides describing how an organization
operates currently, the enterprise architecture also states how it
wants to operate in the future, and includes a road map - a transition
plan - for getting there.
The problem was, the FBI didn't have such a blueprint, as numerous
reports from the Government Accountability Office, the DOJ's inspector
general, and the National Research Council subsequently pointed out.
Without it, the bureau could not, as a 2004 report from the NRC
stated, "make coherent or consistent operational or technical
decisions" about linking databases, creating policies and methods for
sharing data, and making tradeoffs between information access and
With no detailed description of the FBI's processes and IT
infrastructure as a guideline, Depew said that his team of agents
began "to feel our way in the dark," to characterize investigative
processes such as witness interviews and surveillance operations and
map them to the FBI's software and databases. Over a six-week period
in the fall of 2001, Depew's group defined how agents worked, how they
gathered information, and how that information was fed into ACS.
Working with engineers from SAIC, they drew up diagrams and flowcharts
of how the case management system operated then and how they wanted
the new case management system, the VCF, to operate in the future.
Mueller himself attended one of these meetings to tell the agents to
design a system that would work best for them and not to feel
constrained by 50-year-old business rules.
Depew's team also called in people from across the FBI: a dozen in the
first few weeks; 40 by the end of November. These "subject matter
experts" explained how their divisions or units functioned internally
and with the rest of the bureau.
In December 2001, the FBI asked SAIC to stop building a Web front end
for the old programs. (Later, FBI computer specialists would create a
Web interface as a stopgap, which is still used by agents today, until
the VCF was delivered.) Instead, SAIC was asked to devise a new
application, database, and graphical user interface to completely
To formally define what users needed the VCF to do for them, SAIC
embarked on a series of Joint Application Development (JAD) sessions.
In these meetings, Depew's team of agents and experts got together
with a group of SAIC engineers to hash out what functions the VCF
would perform. Ideas captured in these sessions formed the basis of
the requirements document that guided SAIC's application designers and
In January 2002, the FBI requested an additional $70 million to
accelerate Trilogy; Congress went further, approving $78 million.
DynCorp committed to delivering its two components by July 2002. SAIC
agreed to deliver the initial version of the VCF in December 2003
instead of June 2004.
SAIC and the FBI were now committed to creating an entirely new case
management system in 22 months, which would replace ACS in one fell
swoop, using a risky maneuver known in the IT business as a flash
cutover. Basically, people would log off from ACS on Friday afternoon
and log on to the new system on Monday morning. Once the cutover
happened, there was no going back, even if it turned out that the VCF
didn't work. And there was no plan B.
But while the Trilogy contracts were changed to reflect the aggressive
new deadlines, neither the original software contract nor the modified
one specified any formal criteria for the FBI to use to accept or
reject the finished VCF software, as the Inspector General reported
earlier this year. Furthermore, those contracts specified no formal
project schedules at all, let alone milestones that SAIC and DynCorp
were contractually obligated to meet on the way to final delivery.
In reaction to the new deadline, SAIC broke its VCF development group
into eight teams, working in parallel on different functional pieces
of the program, in order to finish the job faster. But the eight
threads would later prove too difficult for SAIC to combine into a
single system. Nevertheless, in an interview at SAIC's McLean, Va.,
office complex, Rick Reynolds, vice president and operations manager
for SAIC, defended the decision to change tactics. "People forget the
urgency that we were under and our customer was under. And we were
right beside them," he declared. "We were in the foxhole together."
AT HOOVER BUILDING HEADQUARTERS, Depew's team was hard at work
describing the FBI's investigative and administrative processes: how
agents built case files, how case files were used, and what additional
functions they wanted the Virtual Case File to perform. While Depew
and his team prepared to communicate the processes that define the FBI
to SAIC engineers, Mueller, Dies, and Chiaradio recruited a seasoned
IT program manager.
Before coming to the FBI, C.Z. ("Sherry") Higgins, a 29-year veteran
of AT&T and Lucent, was running the help desk at the Technology
Command and Control Center for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake
City. As project management executive for the Office of the Director,
Higgins was brought in to create the Office of Program Management.
Higgins's new office would centralize IT management and oversee,
develop, and deploy the bureau's most expensive, complex, and risky
projects. But her most important assignment was to manage Trilogy.
Higgins, who left the FBI in June 2004, lives in a Cape Codstyle
house overlooking a pond deep in the exurbs of Atlanta, in her native
Georgia. During an interview in her living room, three fat scrapbooks
of her two and a half years at the FBI peeked out from beneath a
coffee table covered with candles. Her first move when she came on
board in March 2002, she explained, was to appoint Depew, who had no
IT project management experience, the VCF project manager.
"I'm totally accountable for that," she acknowledged. "We talked a
long time about could he play the role of project manager and still be
customer advocate. And we felt like he could."
Higgins and Depew had developed a rapport quickly. Just a couple of
weeks after she started work at FBI headquarters, Depew invited her to
the Thursday "board meeting" - pizza and beer with his team at a
neighborhood joint. As the group started walking to the restaurant,
Higgins, surrounded by agents in dark suits and sunglasses, asked them
to stop so she could savor the moment. "I have arrived," she
announced. "I'm on Pennsylvania Avenue with men in black!"
The men in black had been specifying the VCF's requirements with SAIC
engineers for several weeks when Higgins shifted Depew into the
driver's seat. By this point, Depew, the former Trenton, N.J.based
bureau man, had rented an apartment in Washington, where he would
live, separated from his family, for the next three years. He was
responsible for a team of seven agents, each of whom acted as an
advocate for a group of subject matter experts in the periodic JAD
meetings with SAIC engineers that the team was attending.
Over a six-month period, the JAD team met in two-week sessions, laying
the unstable foundation for the VCF. Every day of each session,
engineers from SAIC would sit with the agents and experts to chart
existing and future processes on whiteboards. According to Higgins,
sometimes agents would propose Web-page designs for particular
portions of the user interface. So that the crowded meetings would
stay orderly, people were assigned speaker and observer cards. Depew
acted as a facilitator, running the meetings and telling people
whether something they wanted was or was not within the scope of the
"There were times when SAIC and I disagreed on what's in the scope,"
Depew recalled. Sometimes they would agree to "push that off to other
people to decide whether that's in the scope of the current contract."
After a two-week JAD session finished, a two-week feedback cycle would
begin. SAIC provided Depew's team with information gleaned from the
session, including needs statements, flow charts, and meeting minutes.
Depew's team reviewed these materials and gave SAIC feedback while
simultaneously preparing subject matter experts for the next round of
JAD sessions, which immediately followed the feedback cycle. There
were no breaks.
"I worked seven days a week, 14 hours a day," Depew recalled. "Six
months of JAD was hell."
MEANWHILE, HIGGINS was finding it rough going herself. She asked her
colleagues at the FBI and managers at DynCorp, which was working on
the hardware (computers and network) portions of Trilogy, for copies
of the two project schedules. She was told the delivery dates instead.
In contrast, SAIC, with its programmers pecking away at its secure
data center in Vienna, Va., always had a detailed schedule posted
prominently in the "war room" there, which Higgins's team would review
with SAIC periodically, she said.
In mid-April 2002, Higgins gave DynCorp a week to deliver a detailed
schedule. After she got it, she pulled the project teams from the FBI
and DynCorp into a meeting and went through the document. Shortly
after that, Higgins broke the news to the director: the computers and
networks would not be delivered in July of that year as had been
scheduled. She told Mueller that DynCorp didn't stand a chance of
hitting the delivery target, because it didn't have a detailed
schedule that mapped out how it would deploy, integrate, and test the
new computers and networks.
Mueller blamed himself for the delay, because he'd asked for an
accelerated schedule. But Higgins blamed Mueller's staff for not being
straight with him about his agency's ability to deliver what he
"Did somebody come to you and say, okay, Mr. Director, sir, you can
have it sooner, but it's going to cost you this much more money or
you're going to have to do without something?" Higgins remembered
asking Mueller. "And he said, 'No, nobody ever told me that.' And I
said, 'Well, lesson No. 1: faster, cheaper, better. Pick two, but you
can't have all three.'"
With costs escalating and schedules slipping, Mueller had just one
choice left: better. And he didn't even get that with the VCF.
But in the summer of 2002, it certainly seemed as if the Virtual Case
File would be a vast improvement over the Automated Case Support
system. The JAD sessions had produced an exhaustively detailed
requirements document. This plan for a case-management system would
combine the ACS with two other systems: the Telephone Application, the
bureau's central repository of telephone records related to
investigations, and parts of the Criminal Law Enforcement Application,
a repository for investigative data about people, organizations,
locations, vehicles, and communications.
The VCF system would accept scanned documents, photographs, and other
electronic media - to simplify evidence tracking. People with the
proper credentials would be able to access that evidence from any FBI
office. The way work flowed through the bureau would change
dramatically, too. Instead of filling out a form either by hand or in
a word-processing program and then faxing or FedEx-ing the paper form
to a supervisor, an agent would fill out a form online and, with a
click of the mouse, route it to the supervisor. The document would pop
up in a supervisor's in-box, and the agent could track it to see if it
had been approved. And perhaps most important, information collected
within a case file would eventually be available to software
applications that would compare data among cases to search for
correlations - to connect the proverbial dots.
In a Senate hearing in July 2002, Higgins impressed lawmakers,
including Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) - "That Southern charm
gets me every time," an apparently smitten Schumer gushed - with a
PowerPoint presentation about the VCF. Higgins contrasted the 12
different screens agents had to navigate to upload one form into ACS
with the single screen they would use to perform a similar task in the
new system. Higgins told the senators that the initial version of a
user-friendly, secure system would be delivered by December 2003. The
senators seemed satisfied that the VCF would address their gravest
concerns about the FBI's IT systems by giving agents and intelligence
analysts the ability to correlate and share the data needed to prevent
future terrorist attacks. Higgins had reassured the senatorsand
scored some choice memorabilia: a Senate coaster and her nameplate for
IN THE SUMMER OF 2002, turmoil roiled the FBI's IT management. In May,
Bob Dies, the CIO who had launched Trilogy, left the bureau, turning
over his duties to Mark Tanner, who held the position of acting CIO
for just three months, until July 2002. He stepped aside for Darwin
John, former CIO for the Mormon Church. Chiaradio, who declined to be
interviewed for this article, left for a lucrative job in the private
sector with BearingPoint Inc., a global consultancy in McLean, Va.,
and was replaced by W. Wilson Lowery Jr. Within a year, Lowery would
At the same time, SAIC was staffing up. By August 2002, it had around
200 programmers on the job. It was still looking for help,
particularly for its security team, which was reviewing design
documents that described the VCF software's overall structure,
algorithms, and user interface, along with the ways data would be
defined and handled.
Matthew Patton answered an ad on SAIC's Web site for security
engineers. A 1995 Carnegie Mellon University graduate with a B.S. in
information and decision systems, Patton had financed college through
service as a cadet in the U.S. Air Force Reserve Officers' Training
Corps. After college, he spent his four-year tour of military duty at
the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. There he
designed and helped program the database and security components for a
Web-based application used to plan the Department of Defense's $400
Patton's still-valid top-secret DOD clearance qualified him to start
work as part of the VCF security team. His clearance was
provisional - the FBI would have to conduct its own background
investigation (as it does for all contract employees) and grant him
FBI top-secret clearance. So he was not allowed to see the data the
FBI was sending to SAIC, which included information on all of the
cases the bureau had digitized to that point, from the 1995 Oklahoma
City bombing to 9/11. Instead, he spent a lot of time going through
the requirements in his cubicle, segregated from his five colleagues
and his boss. He left SAIC in November 2002, after only three months
on the job.
Patton regards himself as a straight shooter. "I'm not much of a
culture guy," he admits. "I say my piece, and if they don't like it,
that's too damn bad."
But he quickly realized that SAIC didn't hire him for his opinions.
When he began expressing concerns that security was not a top priority
on the project, even in the post-Hanssen era, he was told not to rock
"My refrain to my boss was, 'Why aren't we more involved? We should be
in the thick of things.' But it was more that we weren't really
invited and [SAIC teams working on the VCF] aren't actively seeking
our involvement," Patton said in an interview in Chicago earlier this
year. "So his take on it was basically, once the designers come up
with something, we say good, bad, or indifferent, and if it's not too
bad, then we let it go."
Patton recounted his experience purely from memory. Unlike Higgins,
who meticulously inserted internal FBI e-mails about Trilogy into her
scrapbooks alongside photos of her kids visiting her in D.C., Patton
said that he discarded the notebook he kept while he was at SAIC. The
only existing artifact of his experience is a copy of the 26 October
2002 Internet posting that essentially got him kicked off the VCF
project. The posting, archived at
expressed specific security-related concerns and depicts SAIC as
giving a clueless FBI exactly what it was asking for, no matter how
Patton's descriptions of the 800-plus pages of requirements show the
project careening off the rails right from the beginning. For
starters, this bloated document violated the first rule of software
planning: keep it simple. According to experts, a requirements
document should describe at a high level what functions the program
should perform. The developers then decide how those functions should
be implemented. Requirements documents tend to consist of direct,
general phrases: "The user shall be able to search the database by
keyword," for instance.
"In a requirements document, you want to dictate the whats, not the
hows," Patton said. "We need an e-mail system that can do x, and
there's 12 bullets. Instead, we had things like 'there will be a page
with a button that says e-mail on it.' We want our button here on the
page or we want it that color. We want a logo on the front page that
looks like x. We want certain things on the left-hand side of the
page." He shook his head. "They were trying to design the system
layout and then the whole application logic before they had actually
even figured out what they wanted the system to do."
Recalling the Web pages the agents would bring into the JAD sessions
to demonstrate how they wanted the VCF to look, Higgins blamed both
SAIC and the agents for creating the overstuffed requirements
document. "The customer should be saying, 'This is what we need.' And
the contractor should be saying, 'Here's how we're going to deliver
it.' And those lines were never clear," Higgins said. "The culture
within the FBI was, 'We're going to tell you how to do it.'"
Zalmai Azmi, the FBI's current CIO, has been in that job since
December 2003. Originally brought on as a consultant to Mueller that
November, Azmi had worked with the director when Mueller was U.S.
Attorney in San Francisco and Azmi was CIO of the Executive Office for
United States Attorneys. Azmi saw the Virtual Case File through its
final death throes. In an hour-long interview in his office at the
Hoover Building, Azmi also traced the VCF's demise to flawed
requirements and emphasized that his office is taking pains to make
sure it doesn't happen again.
Azmi insisted that SAIC should have clarified user needs in the JAD
sessions rather than working with requirements that were not "clear,
precise, and complete." On the other hand, the FBI's lax project
management didn't stop the requirements from snowballing. "There was
no discipline to say enough is enough," Azmi said.
The overly specific nature of the requirements focused developers on
their tiny piece of the puzzle. They were writing code, Patton said,
with no idea of how their piece fit with the others. This presaged the
integration problems that would later plague the project.
"The whole working procedure [SAIC project managers] had was very
much, 'We'll give you your marching orders and you go,' without too
much consideration of how in the world do you glue this sucker back
together when all these different divergent pieces come back," Patton
Patton also claimed that SAIC was determined to write much of the VCF
from scratch. This included an e-mail-like system that at least one
team, to his knowledge, was writing, even though the FBI was already
using an off-the-shelf software package, Novell's GroupWise, for
e-mail. "Every time you write a line of code, you introduce bugs,"
noted Patton. "And they had a bunch of people slinging code. I'm not
saying that the guys were technically incompetent. But bugs happen,
and not all programmers are great."
After several weeks of asking his boss questions and being repeatedly
told that he needed to calm down and be "a team player," Patton posted
a message to InfoSec News, an e-mail forum which distributes
information security news articles and comments from its subscribers.
Without naming the VCF specifically, he mentioned that he was working
on Trilogy's case management system and complained that no one was
taking security issues seriously. He pointed to some security measures
the FBI already had in place that might make the case management
system more secure. These included PKI, or public-key infrastructure,
a system of digital certificates and independent authorities that
verify and authenticate the validity of each party involved in an
Internet transaction. He also mentioned Bedford, Mass.based RSA
Security Inc.'s SecurID, which uses a combination of passwords and
physical authenticators that function like ATM cards to protect
various kinds of electronic transactions.
He asked for help in getting in touch "with some heavy-hitting
clued-in people over at the FBI," who would "demand some real
accountability from the contractors involved.
"They [the FBI] don't know enough to even comment on a bad idea, let
alone tear it apart," he went on. "As a two-bit journeyman I can't
seem to get anyone to pay the slightest attention, nor do they
apparently (want to) understand just how flawed the whole design is
from the get-go."
He ended by asking, "Shouldn't somebody care?"
Somebody did. Sherry Higgins saw the message and promptly reported
Patton to the FBI's Security Division. "He had posted information that
was not true and was sensitive," she told me in an e-mail. "He was
pretty much a disgruntled employee. Instead of bringing his concerns
up the ladder, he chose to post them on the Internet. He blasted the
team both at SAIC and the FBI."
"Be careful of him," she warned. "In hindsite [sic], I guess it looks
like he is saying now, 'I told you so.' However, at the time, he was
disruptive instead of constructive."
In response to Higgins's concerns, FBI agents questioned Patton about
whether he had disclosed national security information and breached
his top-secret DOD clearance.
"There was nothing in there that was sensitive material," Patton
maintained. "It was just not flattering of the FBI and the project
After the interview, the FBI decided not to grant Patton top-secret
clearance, making it impossible for him to continue working on the
VCF. SAIC did invite him to find another position within the company,
but it didn't have anything for him in Chicago, to which he was
relocating for personal reasons. So at the end of November 2002,
Patton left SAIC and the VCF.
That same month the FBI and SAIC agreed to a basic set of
requirements, the baseline that SAIC would start from to build the
IN DECEMBER 2002, Higgins asked lawmakers to invest an additional
$137.9 million in Trilogy and the inspector general issued a report on
the FBI's management of information technology that included a case
study of the program. It found that "the lack of critical IT
investment management processes for Trilogy contributed to missed
milestones and led to uncertainties about cost, schedule, and
technical goals." Apparently unperturbed by the findings, Congress
approved another $123.2 million for a project whose total cost had now
ballooned to $581 million.
Meanwhile, SAIC programmers were cranking out code. The company had
settled on a spiral development methodology, an iterative approach to
writing software. Basically, SAIC programmers would write and compile
a block of code that performed a particular function, then run it to
show Depew's agents what it would do. The agents - some of whom were
working at SAIC's data center in Vienna, Va. - gave the programmers
feedback, and the programmers tried to incorporate the suggested
changes. If there was some dispute as to whether the change could or
should be made, the agents sent an official request to the change
control board, composed of SAIC engineers and FBI personnel, for
It wasn't long before the change requests started rolling in - roughly
400 from December 2002 to December 2003, according to SAIC.
"Once they saw the product of the code we wrote, then they would say,
'Oh, we've got to change this. That isn't what I meant,'" said SAIC's
Reynolds. "And that's when we started logging change request after
change request after change request." Reynolds added that SAIC's bid
on the original contract, and each subsequently revised cost estimate,
was based on there being "minimal, minor changes" to the program once
a baseline set of requirements had been agreed on. Instead, SAIC
engineers were like a construction crew working from a set of
constantly changing blueprints.
Some of the changes were cosmetic - move a button from one part of the
screen to another, for instance. Others required the programmers to
add a new function to a part of the program, such as the graphical
user interface, common to all eight development threads.
For example, according to SAIC engineers, after the eight teams had
completed about 25 percent of the VCF, the FBI wanted a "page crumb"
capability added to all the screens. Also known as "bread crumbs," a
name inspired by the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, this navigation
device gives users a list of URLs identifying the path taken through
the VCF to arrive at the current screen. This new capability not only
added more complexity, the SAIC engineers said, but delayed
development because completed threads had to be retrofitted with the
new feature. Once SAIC engineers agreed on how the page crumbs would
work, one of the development teams created a set of
page-crumb-equipped screens for the other seven teams to use as a
model. The design model and supporting documentation were updated, the
teams made the change - and the schedule slipped again.
When asked how SAIC programmers reacted to agents' change requests,
Depew replied, "Let's just say that we gave them feedback on what they
were developing, where it met the requirements and where it didn't.
And there was a lot of inconsistency between their development teams."
Higgins was aware that tensions were mounting inside the VCF project
over the course of the winter and spring of 2003. Sometimes Depew's
team had only two days to review a batch of code. Agents would pull
all-nighters to get the evaluation finished, "and in the next
iteration their comments wouldn't be taken into account," she said.
Sometimes, she acknowledged, these evaluations would include changes
to the requirements - functions that the agents had decided that they
needed once they saw what they were going to get. Other times the FBI
team would find bugs that needed to be fixed.
In March 2003, Computer Sciences Corp., in El Segundo, Calif., which
had acquired DynCorp that month, told Higgins that the final
deployment of the computers and networks would be delayed until
October. In August, October became December. And in October, December
became April 2004. The problem wasn't the PCs, which had been
trickling in since 2001, but changing the e-mail system from Novell's
GroupWise to Microsoft Outlook and, according to the inspector
general's 2005 audit, obtaining the components needed to connect the
field offices to the wide area network. Higgins added that the delays
were compounded by the FBI's own sloppy inventories of existing
networks and its underestimation of how taxing the network traffic
would be once all 22 000 users came online using their new PCs.
While the FBI and SAIC waited for the networks to go live so they
could test the VCF on a real system, changes and fixes continued to
strangle the VCF in the crib. Many of the changes had to be to made by
all eight of SAIC's development teams. Arnold Punaro, SAIC executive
vice president and general manager, admitted in a posting on the
company's Web site that in the rush to get the program finished by
December, SAIC didn't ensure that all of its programmers were making
the changes the same way. That inconsistency occasionally meant that
different modules of the VCF handled data in different ways.
Consequently, when one module needed to communicate with another,
errors sometimes occurred.
"This, however, did not compromise the system," according to Punaro.
The real killers, he said, were "significant management turbulence" at
the FBI, "the ever-shifting nature of the requirements," and the
agents' "trial-and-error, 'We will know it when we see it' approach to
Through the summer of 2003, frustration between the agents and the
engineers mounted. To quell tensions and discuss design flaws the
agents believed were creeping into the VCF, Depew's team asked for a
sit-down, what one agent called the "emperor has no clothes" meeting.
One Sunday in late September, the agents and the engineers gathered to
hash out their differences. Higgins listened in by phone to the first
part of the day-long meeting. "There was an awful lot of anger on both
sides and a lot of finger-pointing," she recalled. "Nobody's hands
were clean." Depew, on the other hand, characterized the meeting as a
frank exchange of views. "There was never any animosity shown by my
team to the SAIC team," Depew said.
Also in September, the U.S. General Accounting Office (renamed the
Government Accountability Office on 7 July 2004) released a report
titled "FBI Needs an Enterprise Architecture to Guide Its
Modernization Activities." The GAO warned that without a blueprint
that provides, in essence, the mother of all requirements documents,
the bureau was exposing its modernization efforts, including the VCF,
to unnecessary risk.
"I suspect what happened with the VCF is that in the rush to put in
place a system, you think you got your requirements nailed, but you
really don't," said GAO's Randolph C. Hite, who worked on the report.
"It was a classic case of not getting the requirements sufficiently
defined in terms of completeness and correctness from the beginning.
And so it required a continuous redefinition of requirements that had
a cascading effect on what had already been designed and produced."
While stressing that there are no guarantees, Hite believes that "had
there been an architecture, the likelihood of these requirements
problems would have been vastly diminished."
But the abundantly funded VCF juggernaut was already hurtling toward
delivery. SAIC began testing the program in the fall of 2003, and
according to Higgins, problems started cropping up, some of which the
agents had warned SAIC about over the previous summer. SAIC officials
complained to Higgins that Computer Sciences Corp. didn't have its
hardware and network in place, so SAIC couldn't adequately test the
VCF, crucial for a successful flash cutover. They informed her that
they would deliver a version of the VCF to be in technical compliance
with the terms of the contract and that the FBI should feel free to
make changes to it afterward.
"The feeling was, they knew that they weren't going to make it in
December of '03," but they were not forthright about the fact, Higgins
ON 13 DECEMBER 2003, SAIC delivered the VCF to the FBI, only to have
it declared DOA.
Under Azmi's direction, the FBI rejected SAIC's delivery of the VCF.
The bureau found 17 "functional deficiencies" it wanted SAIC to fix
before the system was deployed. As an April 2005 report from a U.S.
House of Representatives committee pointed out, there were big
deficiencies and small ones. One of the big ones was not providing the
ability to search for individuals by specialty and job title. Among
the small ones was a button on the graphical user interface that was
labeled "State" that should have read "State/Province/Territory." SAIC
argued that at least some of these deficiencies were changes in
requirements. An arbitrator was called in. The arbitrator's findings,
released on 12 March 2004, found fault with both SAIC and the FBI. Of
the 59 issues and subissues derived from the original 17 deficiencies,
the arbitrator found that 19 were requirements changes - the FBI's
fault; the other 40 were SAIC's errors.
While SAIC fixed bugs, Azmi, with the help of Depew's team, created
investigation scenarios that would take different cases from opening
to closing and tested them on the VCF. Those tests revealed an
additional 400 deficiencies. "We have requirements that are not in the
final product, yet we have capabilities in the final product that we
don't have requirements for," Azmi said in an interview.
On 24 March, days after the arbitrator's findings were released,
Director Mueller testified to the Senate Committee on Appropriation's
Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary that the
VCF would be "on board" - and presumably operational - by the summer
of 2004. The director had scant reason to be so optimistic. True,
Computer Sciences Corp. was then delivering the final pieces of
equipment to the FBI. By April, 22 251 computer workstations, 3408
printers, 1463 scanners, 475 servers, and new local and wide area
networks would all be up and running, 22 months later than the
accelerated schedule called for. But Azmi and SAIC had yet to agree on
the VCF's ultimate fate, much less when it would be deployed. And when
SAIC finally offered to take one more year to make all the changes the
FBI wanted at the cost of an additional $56 million, Azmi rejected the
Azmi was promoted from interim to permanent CIO on 6 May 2004. Four
days later, the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the
National Research Council delivered a report on Trilogy that the FBI
had commissioned. The "graybeards," as Mueller dubbed them, were led
by James C. McGroddy, who had headed IBM Research from 1989 to 1995.
The report made two major recommendations. The flash cutover that
would start up the VCF and shut down ACS all at once must not happen,
as a potential failure would be catastrophic for the bureau. And the
FBI should create an enterprise architecture to guide the development
of its IT systems. The same committee had made both of these
recommendations in September 2002, and according to McGroddy, both
suggestions had been ignored until Azmi took charge.
Azmi invited the graybeards to talk with him, Mueller, Higgins, and a
few other FBI officials on 20 May 2004. Azmi told the gathering that
he had already contracted BearingPoint, where Robert Chiaradio was a
managing director and lead advisor on homeland security, to construct
the current and future versions of the enterprise architecture by
September 2005. And he abandoned the flash cutover idea.
In June, the FBI contracted an independent reviewer, Aerospace Corp.,
in El Segundo, Calif., to review the December 2003 delivery of the VCF
to determine, among other things, whether the system requirements were
correct and complete and to recommend what the FBI should do with the
VCF. At the same time, Azmi asked SAIC to take the electronic workflow
portion of the VCF, code that was in relatively good shape, and turn
that into what was eventually called the Initial Operating Capability
(IOC), at an additional fixed price to the FBI of $16.4 million. SAIC
and the FBI project team had six months to deliver a software package
that would be deployed to between 250 and 500 field personnel in the
New Orleans field office, the Baton Rouge, La., resident agency, and a
drug enforcement unit at the Hoover Building.
The objectives for the new project were clear: test-drive the VCF's
electronic workflow; see how people reacted to the graphical user
interface; create a way to translate the output from the VCF forms,
which was in the eXtensible Markup Language, into the ACS system;
check out network performance; and develop a training program. The IOC
was the perfect guinea pig for Azmi's rigorous approach to software
development and project management, which he called the Life Cycle
The project also needed different managers. On SAIC's side, Rick
Reynolds assumed executive oversight on the project from Brice
Zimmerman. Reynolds replaced VCF project manager Pat Boyle with
Charlie Kanewske. (SAIC declined repeated requests to interview them.)
Depew, like other FBI officials, had only good things to say about
Kanewske. He had been Kanewske's project manager counterpart for a
portion of the Investigative Data Warehouse project, the newest,
shiniest tool at the disposal of FBI agents and intelligence analysts.
Successfully deployed in January 2004, the warehouse translates and
stores data from several FBI databases, including parts of ACS, into a
common form and structure for analysis.
But Depew would not be Kanewske's counterpart for the IOC project. He
moved back to New Jersey, where he became director of the FBI's New
Jersey Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory. When interviewed this
past spring, he was overseeing the lab's daily operations and
construction of a new wing. He was also anticipating retirement after
31 years of public service and thinking of pursuing job opportunities
in the private sector. His final take on the VCF was to the point: "We
wanted it really bad, and at the end it was really bad."
As for Sherry Higgins, she went back home to Georgia before the IOC
project launched. She now consults and teaches project management
courses for the International Institute for Learning Inc., in New York
"When it's not fun anymore, Sherry's not a happy girl," Higgins said
of her mood just prior to her departure. "The writing was on the wall
that IOC was going to be Zal's project. And I just felt like it would
be better for me and for Zal for me to leave."
Azmi handpicked his IOC project manager. He chose the bureau's gadget
guru (think of "Q" from the James Bond movies) - a man with 20 years
of experience delivering surveillance technologies on tight schedules.
At a meeting this past May at the Hoover Building, the IOC project
manager, whom the bureau made available on condition of anonymity, let
me read through an internal FBI report on the IOC and explained the
development process in detail. He stressed that the IOC was never
meant to be deployed to all 28 000 FBI employees but was intended to
test Azmi's methodology. "We followed all of this [process], even in
this aggressive timeline, to prove he's got a good framework for
managing these projects," he said.
With new management in place, about 120 SAIC engineers began work on
the IOC project in June 2004. The FBI and SAIC agreed to keep to a
strict development schedule, define acceptance criteria, and institute
a series of control gatesmilestones SAIC would have to meet before
the project could continue.
Azmi, unlike the previous three CIOs, inserted himself into the
day-to-day operations of the IOC project. All through the second half
of 2004, he met with his project manager every morning at 8:15. Every
night before 10 p.m., the project manager would issue a status report
indicating what milestones had been hit, identifying risks, and
suggesting actions to be taken to avoid mistakes and delays. Azmi's
project manager worked closely with Kanewske to adhere to the baseline
requirements SAIC and the FBI had agreed on for the IOC in July, thus
avoiding a death spiral of change requests. In January, the IOC was
rolled out as a pilot right on schedule, and just before the inspector
general's stinging critique of the VCF was released.
The report on the VCF from Aerospace Corp., the $2 million study of
the December 2003 delivery commissioned by the FBI, began circulating
on Capitol Hill at the same time.
[Spectrum's attempt to obtain a copy of the report under the Freedom
of Information Act was still being litigated at press time.]
But during a hearing this past 3 February, Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.)
disclosed that the report said that "the [VCF] architecture was
developed without adequate assessment of alternatives and conformance
to various architectural standards, and in a way that precluded the
incorporation of significant commercial off-the-shelf software."
Furthermore, "high-level documents, including the concept of
operations, systems architecture, and system requirements were neither
complete nor consistent, and did not map to user needs." Finally, "the
requirements and design documentation were incomplete, imprecise,
requirements and design tracings have gaps, and the software cannot be
maintained without difficulty. And it is therefore unfit for use."
The IOC pilot, meanwhile, ended in March. The verdict: "Although the
IOC application was an aid to task management, its use did not improve
the productivity of most users," according to an internal FBI
When asked why the IOC did not improve productivity, the FBI project
manager emphasized, "The goal was not to achieve improved
productivity. What we learned through this is that when they deploy
the work flow, there's a need to roll out an electronic records
management capability simultaneously."
In other words, FBI employees, particularly agents, found that the IOC
actually increased their workload. Why? Agents filled out forms
electronically and routed them to superiors for approval, after which
the electronic form was uploaded to the ACS, still in use, to be
shared with the rest of the FBI. But to comply with the FBI's
paper-based records management system, the form had to be printed out,
routed, signed, and filed.
So what did the FBI get out of the VCF's last gasp? "We harvested some
of the good work from the past," the FBI project manager told me. "We
focused that into a pilot. We tested that life-cycle development model
of Zal's, and that is a valid, repeatable process. And now we're in a
good position to move on."
FBI officials say they are taking what they learned from the VCF and
charging ahead with new IT projects on two major fronts. Last
September, the White House's Office of Management and Budget tapped
the bureau to spearhead the development of a framework for a Federal
Investigative Case Management System, an effort involving the National
Institutes of Health and the departments of Justice and Homeland
Security. The goal here is to provide a guide for any agency in the
federal government to use when creating a case-management system.
Then, late last May, Mueller announced Sentinel, a four-phase,
four-year project intended to do the VCF's job and provide the bureau
with a Web-based case- and records-management system that incorporates
commercial off-the-shelf software. Sentinel's estimated cost remains a
secret. The bureau expects to award the contract for phase one by the
end of this year for delivery by December 2006. SAIC is one of only a
handful of preapproved government contractors eligible to bid on the
The FBI's Azmi seems confident that the bureau is ready to handle a
project as complex as Sentinel. He said that the FBI has been planning
the program for a year, evaluating commercial off-the-shelf software,
creating an enterprise architecture, and establishing a number of IT
management oversight boards. The bureau has also provided project
management training to 80 IT staff members over the last year.
Even so, Ken Orr, an IT systems architect and one of Mueller's
graybeards, remains skeptical. He rated Sentinel's chances of success
as very low. "The sheer fact that they made that kind of announcement
about Sentinel shows that they really haven't learned anything," Orr
said, from his office in Topeka, Kan. "To say that you're going to go
out and buy something and have it installed within a year, based on
their track record," isn't credible.
"They need to sit down and really plan this out, because if they had
working software today, they'd have only 25 percent of the problem
solved," Orr estimated. The major questions the FBI needs to answer,
he contended, include how to bring these new software programs online
incrementally and train more than 30,000 people to use them. Then they
could focus on converting millions of paper records as well as all of
the audio, video, photographic, and physical evidence that has piled
up over the years, which will continue to grow at an increasing rate
to support the bureau's counterterrorism mission.
"I would guess that it would be closer to 2010 or 2011 before they
have the complete system up and running," Orr said. "That's assuming
that you have a match between the software and the underlying
requirements, which we know are subject to change."
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