SAIC deserves big share of blame for Trilogy

Contractor took advantage of FBI's mismanagement, report says. 'Burning other people's money as fast as possible.'

The Washington Post takes a deep look today at the troubled FBI's troubled Trilogy system and the true disaster at its heart, the Virtual Case File system or VCF. While Congress and press have held the FBI's feet to the fire for the fiasco, Writers Dan Eggen and Griff Witte have obtained a previously unreleased audit of the project which details the culpability of the contractor, SAIC.
Because of an open-ended contract with few safeguards, SAIC reaped more than $100 million as the project became bigger and more complicated, even though its software never worked properly. The company continued to meet the bureau's requests, accepting payments despite clear signs that the FBI's approach to the project was badly flawed, according to people who were involved in the project or later reviewed it for the government.

The writers quote David Kay, formerly the US's chief weapons investigator in Iraq, on what was going on inside the company.

"SAIC was at fault because of the usual contractor reluctance to tell the customer, 'You're screwed up. You don't know what you're doing. This project is going to fail because you're not managing your side of the equation,' " said Kay, who later became the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq. "There was no one to tell the government that they were asking the impossible. And they weren't going to get the impossible."

Two years after 911, the FBI told investigators from the National Research Council they had made great strides. They had in two parts of the project but not in VCF, the heart of the system. There were a few problems there, like agents couldn't take their case records into the field, the system couldn't sort properly, there were no basic navigation aids from the Web era like bookmarks.

Most important, the FBI planned to launch the new software all at once, with minimal testing beforehand. Doing so, the NRC team concluded, could cause "mission-disruptive failures" if the software did not work, because the FBI had no backup plan.

"That was a little bit horrifying," said Matt Blaze, a professor of computer science at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the review team. "A bunch of us were planning on committing a crime spree the day they switched over. If the new system didn't work, it would have just put the FBI out of business."

Does this sound like good project management to you? In point of fact, the question has to be asked, can the government do good project management at all?

Daniel Guttman, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in government contracting law, said: "This case just shows the government doesn't have a clue. Yet the legal fiction is that the government knows what it's doing and is capable of taking charge. The contractors are taking advantage of that legal fiction."

The report the Post obtained was done by The Aerospace Corp. for $2 million to see what corrective action needed to be taken. The conclusion: unsalvagable.

Matthew Patton, a programmer who worked on the contract for SAIC, said the company seemed to make no attempts to control costs. It kept 200 programmers on staff doing "make work," he said, when a couple of dozen would have been enough. The company's attitude was that "it's other people's money, so they'll burn it every which way they want to," he said.

Patton, a specialist in IT security, became nervous at one point that the project did not have sufficient safeguards. But he said his bosses had little interest. "Would the product actually work? Would it help agents do their jobs? I don't think anyone on the SAIC side cared about that," said Patton, who was removed from the project after three months when he posted his concerns online.