Overhaul of FBI computers faulted

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - Members of Congress reacted angrily yesterday to new disclosures of trouble with a major upgrade of the FBI computer system, accusing bureau officials of misleading them about the problems while acknowledging that they will need millions in additional funds to fix them.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, addressing the latest software problem for the first time, said he was "frustrated."

Those comments came as the bureau began damage control after FBI officials concluded that they may have to scrap a $170 million computer program designed to help agents share information to ward off terrorist attacks.

The software is part of a four-year, $581 million computer system overhaul that has been one of Mueller's priorities in the agency's reorganization after the Sept. 11 attacks. But the project has been mired in cost overruns and delays, and the software, Virtual Case File, is now considered outdated and inadequate.

"I am frustrated by the delays," Mueller said yesterday during a news conference in Birmingham, Ala. "I am frustrated that we do not have on every agent's desk the capability of a modern case-management system."

Mueller said the bureau hopes to salvage the software, but other officials, who requested anonymity, said it may have to be replaced.

The FBI will need another four months to decide on a new strategy, the officials said, including a search for a new software partner to replace the original contractor, Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who met with bureau officials yesterday, said he had been assured last May that the software would be ready by the end of 2004 - a year behind schedule - and that it would give the FBI "cutting-edge technology."

"Now we learn that the FBI began to explore new options last August, because it feared that VCF was going to fail," Leahy said, adding: "Bringing the FBI's information technology into the 21st century should not be rocket science."

Congress will have to pour more money into the project to "get the job done," he said.

"I hope we haven't just been pouring money down a rat hole at taxpayers' expense," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican. Grassley said he has asked the Government Accountability Office "to look at how this happened."

The computer overhaul was launched as the bureau was reeling from a series of high-profile security breaches.

The FBI wanted the Virtual Case File software to be built from scratch to maximize the safety and security of information. But the custom design proved expensive, and software companies have been able to develop comparable off-the-shelf systems for a fraction of the cost.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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