The FBI Can’t Compute

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F.B.I. May Scrap Vital Overhaul of Its Outdated Computer System

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is on the verge of scrapping a $170 million computer overhaul that is considered critical to the campaign against terrorism but has been riddled with technical and planning problems, F.B.I. officials said on Thursday.

In a last-ditch effort to save the program, the bureau has hired a research firm at a cost of $2 million to evaluate the mounting problems in creating a “paperless” work system and to determine whether any parts of the project can be salvaged, officials said. One idea under strong consideration is for the bureau to use off-the-shelf software instead of the expensive customized features it has unsuccessfully sought to develop.

The development is a major setback for the F.B.I. in a decade-long struggle to escape a paper-driven culture and replace antiquated computer systems that have hobbled counterterrorism and criminal investigations. Robert S. Mueller III, the bureau’s director, along with members of the Sept. 11 commission and other national security experts, have said the success of that effort is critical to domestic security.

“It’s immensely disappointing to learn of this type of failure,” Lee H. Hamilton, the vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, said in an interview. “The F.B.I. cannot share information and manage their cases effectively without a top-flight computer system, and we on the commission got assurances again and again from the F.B.I. that they were getting on top of this problem. It’s very, very disappointing to see that they’re not.”