What Really Happened with the FBI's Virtual Case File System?

As I noted yesterday, I was recently in Washington, D.C. attending a breakfast seminar sponsored by Government Executive magazine on the topic, "What Are the Essential Ingredients for a Successful Large IT Project?" The two gentlemen speaking were Randolph (Randy) Hite, Director, IT Architecture and Systems Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office and Zal Azmi, Chief Information Officer, Federal Bureau of Investigation. My previous post centered on Mr. Hite's comments, today I'll focus on Mr. Azmi's.

Azmi spoke of the current Sentinel project, the follow-on to the infamous Virtual Case File (VCF) system that failed so spectacularly a few years ago. IEEE Spectrum's Senior Associate Editor Harry Goldstein wrote an in depth story on VCF.

According to the FBI, "Sentinel will consolidate and replace the FBI's legacy case management capabilities with an integrated, paperless file management and workflow system," and be implemented in four phases. Phase I recently completed, and Phase II is ready to begin.

Azmi made the statement that Sentinel is not a technical program, but really a political program. He phrased it interestingly: Sentinel is the Bureau and the Bureau is Sentinel. In other words, the FBI's operations will be centered in Sentinel. If Sentinel fails as a program, the Bureau by implication, fails as an organization.

Azmi's went on to say that he briefs FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III every Wednesday at 2 PM on Sentinel's status, the DCI once a month, and Congressional folks once a quarter on the status of the project. I also know that Azmi holds a risk management review meeting once a day with the prime contractor. If Sentinel fails as a program, no one can say they didn't know its status.

Which brings me to something else Azmi discussed, and that is about his early days on the VCF program. Azmi related that he was asked by Mueller in November of 2003 to look into the status of the VCF program. Azmi said that he had a meeting in mid-November attended by 46 people (I assume FBI management and contractors) who assured him that everything was great. He also said that he was also told that only 68% of the test cases had been performed, and that the software problem reports were increasing, not decreasing. Given that this was only six weeks away from delivery, this was a bit disconcerting.

Azmi also was told by the contractor a few weeks later, that a "draft" version of the software was going to be delivered. Azmi related that he had never heard of that term before, which brought a chuckle from the crowd.

All this was already on the public record.

But then, Azmi said something that really got my ears pointed.

He said that in January 2004, he told Mueller that VCF was not going to work. Not that it needed a lot more work to be made whole, or that it could be salvaged; no - it could not be made to work. Azmi said that the contractor has delivered 733,000 lines of code, and if you changed one, you in effect had ripple effects throughout the system. Azmi implied that even then if wasn't a matter of whether the VCF was going to be replaced, but just a matter of when.

Why this got my attention, is the following.

A Washington Post article on VCF says that:

"Within a few days [this was after seeing the system in November 2003], Azmi said, he warned FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III that the $170 million system was in serious trouble."

Now, according to the Post, Azmi told Mueller that VCF was in serious trouble. But in an open forum, Azmi says it won't work and tells Mueller this. Who cares?

Well, in March 2004, Mueller is telling Congress that:

"As you know, during the past year we encountered some setbacks regarding the deployment of Full Site Capability (FSC) and the Virtual Case File, and we are moving quickly to address them. We are working to resolve each issue, and will continue deployment throughout the country.

I believe that we are now on the right track, and we are closing in on the goal of completion. We are being diligent in our efforts to complete this project within the resources available, and I am committed to ensuring the successful completion of this project."

Also, Mueller tells Congress, according to the Post story, that "the FBI had experienced 'a delay with the contractor' but that the problem had been 'righted.' He said he expected that 'the last piece of Virtual Case File would be in by this summer.'"

Now, was this a case of "positive spin" or something a bit more akin, as they say in Washington, D. C., of being "economical with the truth" by Mueller?

Or did Mueller just not believe everyone who was telling him VCF was dead? After all, he assured Congress in May 2004 everything with VCF was still going according to plans, when to everyone else it was a case of dead man walking.

Given what Azmi said on Wednesday, it sure would be interesting to know.


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Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City