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Virtual Case File: FBI It Infrastructure Failure Report

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Updated: Sep 11th, 2021

In the modern world, information technology has become an important management tool in many organizations. Since the advent of computers, operations in many organizations have been computerized with easy management of information in the organization. However, all has not been well in many organizations with the installation of IT infrastructure. According to Alter, S. (2002, many organizations have experienced a massive loss of resources in an attempt to install or upgrade the IT system. Failure in the IT system can be caused by many factors.

One of the greatest reasons leading to failure is due to lack of initial assessment of the system and the implications it will have on the organization. This leads to the installation of systems that do not help the organization or are too expensive for the organization to maintain. Poor architectural design and decision can be another major cause of the failure of the system. This can be due to the inclusion of personnel not competent enough in the computer science field. As White (2004) argues, the management of the software system can be another reason for the failure of the system. These are just but few major causes of IT system failure. There are other causes but some of them are specific to an organization and a particular instance.

Virtual Case File of the FBI

The FBI is the major investigation body in the United States of America. It was established in 1908 to deal with the investigation of criminal cases ranging from smart crimes happening in day to day life in America, to complex matters involving counterterrorism, counterintelligence, cyber, public corruption, civil rights, organized crimes, white-collar crimes, and other kinds of theft and violent crimes.

Due to its scope of operation, the FBI needs a comprehensive information management system since it deals mainly with intelligence issues that involve a lot of information. At the turn of the new century, the FBI has been faced with a lot of challenges in the management of the information system. According to Doherty (2006), it has woken up to the realization that the world is advancing in technology and it needed to catch up with the changing technology if it had to remain relevant in the investigation field. With information technology being no longer the privilege of the top organizations of the world and with the crime world becoming more and more highly computerized, the FBI must always being on top of the criminals in some of the areas that they seem to outsmart. This was the reason that led to the development of a new IT system.

Initial FBI information system

The FBI was for a long time threatened with new crimes that were becoming more and more sophisticated for it to handle. From the early days when Italian Mafia partnered with Russian mobsters to siphon millions of dollars from New Jersey State which saw Gambino family, the Genovese family, and others being convicted of the highly-rated crime, to the 2001 terrorist attack on the Twin Tower, the FBI was highly criticized of not having an efficient system that could deal hard on breaking the information system of the crime world.

The September 11 attack left the FBI with clear information that their information system was not competent to that used by the terrorists and other criminals. It was criticized for not gathering crucial information that would have prevented the loss of life in the attack. Before the agent thought of installing the Virtual Case File, it had for a long time relied on The Archaic Automated Case Support System which was adopted in 1995.

However, this system was rarely used by some agents since it was cumbersome, inefficient, very low capability, and very poor in management. It was also criticized for not being able to manage, link, research, analyze and share information effectively. The system was not efficient and it needed an immediate overhaul if the agent was to remain on top of crime. This replaced the 1970s program which used over 40-odd software including database Adabas and programming language of Natural based on software like AG, Darmstadt, Germany, and others.

The start of VCF

In the year 2000, the FBI embarked on a mission to upgrade its IT systems by the installation of new software. In the same year, Congress approved $379 million to be spent over three years to upgrade the FBI information system. The then Assistant Director of Information Bob Dies was the one who prepared the starting plans in the year 2000.

The system was divided into three components hence the name Trilogy was born. All the 56 FBI file offices, some 22 000 agents, and support staff were to be provided with new Dell Pentium PCs running the Micro-soft office with scanners, printers, and servers were to make up the Information Presentation Component. Then there would be the Transportation Network Component with was to provide secure local area and wide area network for easy sharing of information. The third component was to be the User Application Component which was the Virtual Case File and the new system to be used to manage its information system.

It was of vital importance not only to the investigative body but also to the whole country. The VCF was to use five investigative applications including the Automated Case Support System, Intelplus, the Criminal Law Enforcement application, the Integrated Information Application, and the Telephone Application. It was also to rebuild and remake the FBI intranet and also identify new ways of replacing all the 40 odd software that was used by the FBI. The project was bound to start working in 2004 but it never saw its date of completion since it was officially abandoned in April 2005. The project was commissioned by Director Robert S. Mueller III.

In June 2001, the contract to implement the new system was awarded to major U.S government contracts in a cost-plus-award-fee system. Dyncorp was awarded the tender for hardware and network projects while SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation) was awarded the tender for software. The contract was to be delivered in 2004.

Problems of the VCF

With the appointment of Robert Mueller as the Director of FBI one week before the September 11 attack, there was a high geared commitment towards the implementation of the initial plan of the VCF. With the expectation that the VCF would replace the inefficient system an 800-page document that was prepared was of very low quality and was expected to be the base for the development of the system.

This document was prepared after meeting with the users of the ACS system and their recommendations were contained in the initial document. This document showed that the project defied the basic laws of software planning. It defied the rule which needs the plan to define the exact role of the project. It should then define how the plan is to be executed systematically. This showed that the project was a failure right from the start.

Mueller has estimated that 251 computers, 3408 printers, 1463 servers, and new LAN (Local Area Network) and WAN (Wide Area Network) would be in operation in the summer of 2004 which was 22 months behind its schedule. The project never developed along with its schedule despite the frequent consumption of taxpayer’s money.

According to Eggen and Witte (2006), another failure of the system was a communication problem between the eight groups working under SAIC. It became difficult to thread the 8 teams into one cohesive one. This was intended to address the issue of urgency that the project had and its importance in combating the rising terrorist cases. They used the wrong plan in the implementation of the project preferring to use basic technologies like messaging, workflow, or email to the existing software. The project never worked on the 2002 schedule. Seeing it was lagging behind, the FBI requested additional funding of $70 million to pump into the project in order to accelerate it. Congress responded by awarding $78 million and both contractors vowed to deliver their tenders a year earlier than agreed.

In the plan, SAIC agreed with the FBI that they would replace the ACS system within 22 months in one swoop. This involved using the risky flash cutover system. This meant that the agent would switch off the ACS system on Friday afternoon and log on to the new VCF system on Monday morning. This was risky since there was no plan B in case the system did not work.

At the time of development, there was intense pressure both on the side of the SAIC and the FBI on delivering the new system. SAIC embarked on staffing new developers to meet the deadline. At the same time, there were quick successions of the CIO’s office. In May 2002, Bob Dies who launched the project handed it over to Mark Tanner who acted in the position for only three months before stepping aside for John Darwin. John was later replaced by Wilson Lowery.

SAIC worked very hard and delivered the VCF in 2003. However, it was declared not fully functional by the FBI on account that it had 17 operational deficiencies which needed to be addressed before the new system was installed. This resulted in a heated debate between the two sides with the SAIC team claiming that deficiencies resulted from specification changes which were what the FBI had insisted on. An arbitrator mediated between the two and both sides were declared faulty on their allegations.

It was clear to all that that system had failed even to the management of the system. The Director of the agent, Robert Mueller convinced the congress standing before the Senate Committee on Appropriation’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary that the system would be in operation in a matter of months. To this SAIC claimed that the project needed an additional fund of $50 million to be operational but Congress only approved $16 million to save the system. Congress also hired Aerospace Corporation to assess the project further on grounds of its viability at a cost of $2 million. Aerospace released its report on the project in late 2004 which showed that that system was faulty and could not be applied.

It was highlighted that the system failed due to software engineering errors. The failure was specifically caused by poor architectural design work and decisions made from the beginning. As earlier highlighted by SAIC, repeated changes in the Agent’s specifications, made it difficult to focus on one area of development to the end, as there were many alterations in the process which eventually led to code bloat.

The problem in the specification was due to the fact that the FBI dictated what they wanted and went further to dictate how it is to be done. As we have seen earlier, there was heightened succession in the CIO’s office and at the same time, SAIC was involved in a lot of new hiring which brought new people to work in the system. Hence management and workforce changes can be partly attributed to the failure of the project.

The supervision of the developers was closely tied to the management issues and was a cause of failure in the development of the project. The problem of management was compounded by the involvement of unqualified FBI officers as the managers of the project. The use of a flash cutover deployment system could have complicated the adoption of the system taking into account the nature of the FBI work and the role of information in their work.

In the end, the project claimed that the project had used up more than $104 million of public funds. However, the figure could be much higher if well accounted for since initially, congress had approved $379 million. Although it is not all accounted for, congress had approved additional funds of $70 million, $16 million, and $2 million. This totals $88 million and does not put into account the initial funding.

The project must have used more public funds than estimated. According to Dizard (2007), it is claimed that the project used more than $581 of public funds although it may not have exhausted all the funds. The project cost the agent a lot in terms of resources and the fact that it resulted back to the much-criticized ACS system which it uses up to date. Stirland (2005), argues that although the agent has planned to install a new IT system by the name Sentinel which is expected to be in operation in 2009, there is still much to be done in the management of the project if it has to succeed.

This is case study demonstrates that the implementation of any information technology project should be initially assessed and all aspects considered before it is implemented. This case gives appropriate lessons to the FBI officials in the future when they think of implementing another IT project. Software Engineering and management issues are key considerations in any IT project to be implemented.


Alter, S. (2002). Information Systems. University of San Francisco Press.

Dizard, W. (2007): FBI overhauls Virtual Case File contract. Government Computer News. Web.

Doherty, A. J. (2006). The FBI I-drive and the right to a fair trial; Iowa Law Review; Iowa University Press.

Eggen, D. and Witte, G. (2006): The FBI upgrade that wasn’t. Washington Post.

Stirland, S. L. (2005). Senators grill FBI chief over failed Virtual Case File system. Nationals Journal’s Technology Daily.

White, C. M. (2004): Data Communication and Computer Networks. Thomson.

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