Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Virtual Case File System

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Lead Authors: Heidi Davidz, John Brackett

This case study presents systems and software engineering issues encountered in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Virtual Case File (VCF) project in the period between 2000-2005. VCF development was abandoned in 2005 after over $170 million had been spent.

Domain Background

The FBI is an organization within the United States Department of Justice (DoJ) consisting of 23 divisions, including counterintelligence, criminal investigation, and cybercrime. The Bureau's 12,400 agents investigate everything from counter-terrorism leads to kidnappings. They interview witnesses, develop informants, conduct surveillance, hunt for clues, and collaborate with local law enforcement to find and arrest criminals. Agents document every step and methodically build case files. They spend a tremendous amount of time processing paperwork. This system of forms and approvals stretches back to the 1920s when forms for all of the bureau's investigative reports were standardized.

In 2000, the Bureau had hundreds of standardized paper forms and an obsolete information technology (IT) systems. The FBI’s 13,000 computers could not run modern software. Most of the agency offices were connected to the FBI Intranet with links operating at about the speed of a 56 kilobits-per-second modem. Agents could not e-mail U.S. Attorneys, federal agencies, local law enforcement, or each other; instead, they typically sent case-related information by fax. The agency’s problems in 2000 were summarized in the 9/11 Commission Report: "The FBI's information systems were woefully inadequate. The FBI lacked the ability to know what it knew; there was no effective mechanism for capturing or sharing its institutional knowledge" (National Commission on Terrorist Acts upon the United States 2004).

In September 2000, Congress approved $380 million over three years for what was then called the FBI Information Technology Upgrade Program. Eventually divided into three parts, the program became known as the Trilogy Information Technology Modernization Program. The first part would provide all 56 FBI field offices with updated computer terminals, as well as new hardware such as scanners, printers, and servers. The second part would re-implement the FBI Intranet to provide secure local area and wide area networks, allowing agents to share information with their supervisors and each other. The third part was intended to replace the FBI's investigative software applications, including the obsolete Automated Case Support (ACS) system.

In June 2001, the FBI awarded a contract to develop the investigative software applications of Trilogy to Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) over a three year period. The purpose of the software to be developed was to:

  • provide the capability to find information in FBI databases without having prior knowledge of its location, and to search all FBI databases with a single query through the use of search engines;
  • Web-enable the existing investigative applications;
  • improve capabilities to share information inside and outside the FBI;
  • provide access to authorized information from both internal and external databases; and
  • allow the evaluation of cases and crime patterns through the use of commercial and FBI-enhanced analytical and case management tools.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the inability of FBI agents to share the most basic information about al Qaeda's U.S. activities was front-page news. Within days, the FBI's obsolete technology infrastructure was being discussed in Congress and the FBI was under intense pressure to improve its information sharing capabilities. On September 4, 2001, Robert S. Mueller III became FBI director, and, in the face of intense public and congressional pressure, Mueller accelerated the Trilogy program. The planned three-year period to develop the investigative software was considered politically unacceptable. In January 2002, the FBI requested an additional $70 million to accelerate Trilogy; Congress went further, approving $78 million.

Providing web-enablement of the existing but antiquated and limited ACS system would not provide the investigative case management capabilities required to meet the FBI’s post-September 11 mission. In December 2001, the FBI asked SAIC to stop building a Web-based front end for the old programs. Instead, SAIC was asked to devise a new case management system, the Virtual Case File (VCF), to replace ACS. The VCF would contain a major new application, database, and graphical user interface. In order to make both criminal and terrorist investigation information readily accessible throughout the FBI, major changes to the standardized FBI processes would be required. This case study focuses on the VCF component of the Trilogy program.

Case Study Background

The most complete description of the development of the VCF is the report by the DoJ Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The OIG reports to the Attorney General and is independent of the FBI organizations responsible for the Trilogy program. The introduction to the report states, “We conducted this audit to assess the FBI’s progress in meeting cost, schedule, technical, and performance targets for the three components of Trilogy. We also examined the extent to which Trilogy will meet the FBI’s current and longer-term IT needs” (OIG 2004).

An IEEE Spectrum article complements the OIG audit report by detailing the development of the VCF requirements, the contractor’s activities, and the project management failures by both the FBI and the contractor. The contractor’s viewpoint is presented in testimony given before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee.

These materials, in total, provide a comprehensive view of the VCF program and the reasons for its failure.

Case Study Description

In the political environment following the 9/11 attacks, funding for the VCF project was never a problem. By early 2002, SAIC and the FBI committed to creating an entirely new case management system in 22 months. High-level funding enabled the project to continue gaining momentum in spite of the problems it encountered. The scheduling for the VCF project focused on what was desired, not what was possible. Trilogy’s scope grew by approximately 80% from the initial project baseline (Moore 2010).

The reasons for the failure of the VCF project are associated with the non-use or misuse of numerous system engineering practices, especially within stakeholder needs definition, system requirements definition, planning, assessment and control, and risk management. Given the political pressures following the 9/11 attacks, the schedule was accelerated to the point that it was nearly impossible for the developers to follow an appropriate systems engineering process.

The FBI cycled through five people in the role of Chief Information Officer in four years and most decisions were made by committees. In order to compress the schedule, the FBI even proposed replacing the ACS with the VCF over a weekend using an IT procedure called a “flash cut-over.” In this proposed implementation, the ACS system would be taken offline and entirely replaced by VCF. Once the cut-over happened, there would be no mechanism to return to ACS, even if the VCF did not work properly.

SAIC worked under a cost-plus-award-fee contract for the VCF as the scope of the project was undefined in early 2002 when work began. Given the schedule pressures, the FBI believed that there was no time to develop formal requirements (glossary)requirements (glossary), validatevalidate them with the various FBI user communities, and then estimate the cost and time required to develop the VCF. The SAIC contract did not require specific completion milestones and the cost-plus contract allowed the scope to increase. VCF was a case of not having the requirements sufficiently defined in terms of completeness and correctness. The continuous redefinition of requirements had a cascading effect on what had already been designed and produced. Once there was demonstrable software, change requests started arriving—roughly 400 from December 2002 to December 2003.

The new FBI Intranet was specified during 2001, before the start of the VCF project and with little understanding of the network traffic that would result from information sharing. By early 2003, the FBI began to realize how taxing the network traffic would be once all 22,000 users came online. The requirements for the FBI Intranet were modified based on the best guesses for the bandwidth that would be required when the VCF was fully operational. By early 2004, the new FBI Intranet was in operation, although the VCF software was far from complete.

In reaction to the time pressure, SAIC broke its VCF development group into eight teams working in parallel on different functional elements of the program. However, this posed many integration challenges and the eight threads would later prove too difficult for SAIC to combine into a single system. By the time VCF was canceled, SAIC had developed over 700,000 lines of software based upon an incomplete set of requirements that were documented in an 800-page volume.


The OIG summarizes its conclusions as:

Various reasons account for the delays and associated cost increases in the Trilogy project, including:

  • poorly defined and slowly evolving design requirements,
  • contracting weaknesses,
  • IT investment management weaknesses,
  • lack of an Enterprise Architecture,
  • lack of management continuity and oversight,
  • unrealistic scheduling of tasks,
  • lack of adequate project integration, and
  • inadequate resolution of issues raised in our previous reports on Trilogy. . . .

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an Enterprise Architecture is a set of descriptive models such as diagrams and tables that define, in business and technology terms, how an organization operates today, how it intends to operate in the future, and how it intends to invest in technology to transition from today's operational environment to tomorrow's. . . .

As of early 2005 the FBI’s operations remain significantly hampered due to the poor functionality and lack of information-sharing capabilities of its current IT systems. . . . (OIG 2005)

In May 2005, FBI director Mueller announced Sentinel, a four-phase, four-year project intended to fulfill the purpose of VCF and provide the Bureau with a web-based case and records management system. During the previous five years, commercial case management software had become available; as a result, Sentinel is intended to utilize commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software. A report by the OIG in late 2009 describes Sentinel and its status at that time. Sentinel was put online for all employees on July 1, 2012, and it ended up at $451 million and 2 1/2 years overdue (Yost 2012).


Works Cited

Moore, S. 2010. "The Failure of the FBI's Virtual Case File Project." Strategic PPM: Project and Portfolio Management, last modified April 5, accessed on September 11, 2011. Available at http://strategicppm.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/the-fbis-virtual-case-file-project-and-project-failure.

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. 2004. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. New York, NY, USA: W. W. Norton & Company.

Office of the Inspector General. 2005. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Management of the Trilogy Information Technology Project. Washington, DC, USA: United States Department of Justice. Audit Report 05-07. February 2005. Accessed on September 11, 2011. Available at http://www.justice.gov/oig/reports/FBI/a0507.

Office of the Inspector General. 2009. Sentinel Audit V: Status of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Case Management System. Washington, DC, USA: U.S. Department of Justice. Audit Report 10-03. November 2009. Accessed on September 11, 2011. Available at http://www.justice.gov/oig/reports/FBI/a1003_redacted.pdf.

Yost, P. 2012. "'Sentinel', New FBI Computer System, Finally Tracking Cases -- Years Late and Millions Over Budget." Washington, DC, USA. Accessed on August 6, 2012. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/31/sentinel-fbi_n_1725958.html.

Primary References


Additional References

Goldstein, H. 2005. "Who Killed the Virtual Case File?" IEEE Spectrum. September. Accessed at September 11, 2011. Available at http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/software/who-killed-the-virtual-case-file.

Testimony before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary, U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, February 3, 2005 (statement of Arnold Punaro, Executive Vice President, Science Applications International Corporation).

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