January 31, 2005
WASHINGTON - The FBI's failure to roll out an expanded computer system that would help agents investigate criminals and terrorists is the latest in a series of costly technology blunders by government over more than a decade.
Experts blame poor planning, rapid industry advances and the massive scope of some complex projects whose price tags can run into billions of dollars at U.S. agencies with tens of thousands of employees.
"There are very few success stories," said Paul Brubaker, former deputy chief information officer at the Pentagon. "Failures are very common, and they've been common for a long time."
The FBI said earlier this month it might shelve its custom-built, $170 million "Virtual Case File" project because it is inadequate and outdated. The system was intended to help agents, analysts and others around the world share information without using paper or time-consuming scanning of documents.
Officials said commercial software might accomplish some of what the FBI needs.
The bureau's mess - the subject of an investigation by the Justice Department and an upcoming congressional hearing - was the latest black eye among ambitious technology upgrades by the government since the 1990s.
The Internal Revenue Service sought $388 million last year for its $1.7 billion "Business System Modernization" program, which congressional investigators said continues to be over budget and 15 months late. The plan will modernize the IRS systems for collecting taxes, auditing returns and helping taxpayers with questions.
The Federal Aviation Administration has doubled its cost estimates to $1.69 billion for its "Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System" since 1996, according to the Transportation Department's inspector general. The new system would replace the outdated computers that control air traffic within five to 50 miles of airports.
While these are current examples, the problem has lingered for years.
"The government is just as inept in buying computers as it is in using them for accounting," declared a 1994 report, called "Computer Chaos," from a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee. "The system is indeed broken and it is time to fix it."
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the FBI's computer overhaul "a train wreck in slow motion." Critics said the FBI's case illustrated government's propensity to build its software from scratch, which can dramatically increase a project's complexity and cost.
"They do have a tendency to reinvent the wheel," said James X. Dempsey, an expert on national security for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based civil liberties group.
Yet some industry experts praised the FBI for its decision, saying that its potential $170 million loss paled in comparison to other government technology blunders. They also noted that FBI Director Robert Mueller acted properly to pull the plug when he realized the system wouldn't work as envisioned.
"To the FBI's credit, it could have been worse," Brubaker said. "They should build off-ramps early in the process, so if they think things are going south, they can push the reset button."
Experts note some services, such as tracking terrorists, are unique to the federal government, making it unlikely that commercial products would work without extensive modification.
"If you're in the commercial sector, there is some possibility that a packaged application might serve your purpose," said Nancy Harvey, chief executive of TenFold Corp., a small Utah-based company that builds specialized computer systems. "But it's unlikely that Robert Mueller can find an off-the-shelf product called 'Find Terrorist.' He probably has to build the application he really needs."
Harvey and others said that while government technology blunders frequently make headlines, large-scale computer upgrades in the private industry fail almost as often. But these corporate blunders aren't publicized by congressional committees, federal investigators and inspectors general, they noted.
"Ever since there's been IT (information technology), there have been problems," said Allan Holmes, Washington bureau chief for CIO, a magazine published for information executives. "The private sector struggles with this as well. It's not just ... the federal government that ... can't get it right. This is difficult."