Catching Terrorists with 1920s Technology

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On August 18, the Washington Post ran a story on the post-9/11 technology investments at the FBI. The story concludes, “five years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and more than $600 million later, agents still rely largely on the paper reports and file cabinets used since federal agents began chasing gangsters in the 1920s.”

As part of the agency’s enormous Trilogy project, a proposed Virtual Case File system designed to help agents share terrorist threat information was scrapped after $170 million and four years of development.

The Post story details the management lapses and lack of oversight at both the FBI and contractor SAIC that led to the breakdown and waste of taxpayer dollars (probably why companies like SAIC get the moniker “Beltway bandits”).

A few of the all-too-common government failings relayed in the article:

  • The contractor, SAIC, burned through federal taxpayer money at a furious clip, with little effort to control costs.
  • The scope and cost of the project continued to grow once it was underway.
  • The FBI conducted little oversight of the project, and failed to provide clear direction to the contractor, despite the project’s obvious importance to national security.

The FBI-VCF management disaster is one of many I discuss in my book Downsizing the Federal Government (see here [pdf] for a shorter summary).

The federal government simply cannot manage large, complex tasks with any degree of efficiency. The list of multi-billion dollar failures of technology, highway, and weapons projects grows longer all the time.