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Published: Tuesday, 8/29/2006

A question of competence

FOR more than five years now, we've been asking a tough question: What's wrong with the FBI that it cannot seem to come up with a computer system worthy of the nation's leading law enforcement agency?

This question came to the fore when, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was revealed that the FBI was still functioning in a pen, paper, and file drawer era. Its computers were so archaic that agency lacked the simple capability to e-mail photographs of the hijacking suspects to its field offices.

Unfortunately, there's not been much improvement since then. Eighteen months ago, Director Robert Mueller was forced to concede the failure of a $170 million software project that was supposed to nudge the computer system into the 21st century.

A great deal of ire for failure to resolve the computer conundrum has been directed both at Mr. Mueller, who took the agency's top post just a week before 9/11, and his lackluster predecessor, Louis Freeh, who couldn't master the task either.

Now comes news of a previously unreleased 2005 government audit that seems to place significant blame for the fiasco not just on Mr. Mueller and his subordinates but on the agency's contractor, Science Applications International Corp.

The report, according to the Washington Post, indicates that SAIC continued to milk its open-ended contract with the FBI long after it became clear in 2003 that the project was doomed by mistakes both on the part of contractor and customer.

The so-called Virtual Case File software, a huge database, was poorly conceived and executed from the start, but the company forged ahead anyway, reluctant to explain to FBI management that "they were asking for the impossible and they weren't going to get the impossible," as one observer with former ties to SAIC put it.

At this point, who was mostly responsible matters little, but the audit reinforces that no one at the FBI apparently had the management skills to understand first, what the agency needed in its software, and second, that the contractor wasn't providing it.

The Bush Administration has recorded so many spectacular management failures that they are nearly impossible to overstate.

From willful foreign policy miscalculations like the war in Iraq to ineptness by FEMA in dealing with Hurricane Katrina, President Bush and his top aides appear to lack the skills and understanding necessary to organize a two-car funeral.



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