THE FBI'S continuing and very costly failure to develop an internal computer system allowing its thousands of far-flung agents to efficiently exchange critical information at Internet speed is a national security threat that can no longer be tolerated.
Recent reports that the capstone of the bureau's more than half-billion-dollar project to enter the 21st century - an information-sharing system called "Virtual Case File" - is now deemed a failure and may be scrapped have prompted Capital Hill calls for investigations and not-so-jesting suggestions that the agency's cyber-problems might have been solved years ago if it had just relied on a bunch of teen hackers.
This is no mere government boondoggle. The FBI's problems with computers are a dangerously broken record. They go back a decade or more and were directly implicated in the nation's inability to protect itself against the 9/11 attacks. There's good evidence that the problems aren't merely technical, but managerial - from the bureau's old-school culture to the remarkably high turnover of its chief information officers in recent years.
In the 1990s, despite several computerization initiatives, the FBI was still using technologies from the 1960s and 1970s. By May 2001, the bureau's systems were called "slow, unreliable and obsolete" by the House Judiciary Committee. Four months later, when the terrorists toppled the World Trade Center, the agency's 56 field offices had such limited access to e-mail and the Internet that photos of the hijackers had to be transmitted not by computer but by overnight mail.
Even before the 9/11 commission blamed the FBI's antiquated computers in part for its inability to connect telling information in advance of the attacks, Congress was handing the bureau billions of dollars in new funds, a good chunk - $581 million so far - for a new computer system. That bought 30,000 computers, a secure, high-speed network connecting them, and, for $170 million, the now failed Virtual Case File that was supposed to allow agents to freely enter and share data from around the country.
That project, behind schedule and over budget, may never even be finished; the contract of the vendor, Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, ends this spring and reportedly will not be renewed. Even if the project were completed, a National Research Council report last spring said that the case-file system would be inadequate because it was designed for criminal, not anti-terrorism, investigations.
Reacting to the recent reports, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said he was frustrated: "There were problems we did not anticipate." We find any excuses - coming after the bureau's years of similar excuses and wasted resources - to be unacceptable. The CIA and the National Security Agency apparently don't have such computer failures. If the FBI can't handle this, perhaps these two other agencies should be called in.