FBI has made major progress, former IT chief says

For the past 18 months, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been frantically trying to dig itself out of a knowledge management sinkhole created by years of mismanaged IT projects. And according to the bureau’s former IT chief, progress to date has been astonishing.

Robert Chiaradio, managing director of homeland security at McLean, Va.-based BearingPoint Inc., spent 18 years in the FBI. He left the bureau last July after serving for 18 months as executive assistant director for administration. In that capacity, Chiaradio was one of four officials who reported directly to FBI Director Robert Mueller and was responsible for the bureau’s entire IT budget.

According to Chiaradio, years of deploying IT systems without a view toward an enterprisewide architecture resulted in an “improvised” IT infrastructure of more than 50 stovepiped applications written in various languages and running on disparate systems.

“What they ended up with was a critical shortfall in knowledge management,” Chiaradio said. “That became obvious very quickly after Sept. 11, 2001.”

However, a three-part modernization effort, started under former director Louis Freeh, includes the deployment of the Trilogy network, deployment of upgraded desktop hardware and servers, and a user application component that focuses on Web-enabling a handful of the most important investigative databases and systems. The most important of those systems is the Automated Case File system.

“Web-enablement really was the issue,” said Chiaradio. But after Sept. 11, “Mueller immediately recognized that there was no time to wait, and he ordered that the three-year timeline for the modernization project be truncated to ‘as soon as technically possible.’ “

Several weeks after the attacks, Mueller asked Chiaradio to return to FBI headquarters from his position as the agent in charge of the Tampa, Fla., field office, to help push the modernization effort into overdrive. Chiaradio met with the FBI director at 6 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2001. The meeting lasted three hours, after which Chiaradio devised the concept for the Virtual Case File system.

Developing the System

Within days, Chiaradio had put together a team of FBI “practitioners” and had begun developing a prototype of how the new system should work. What he found was that the FBI was predominantly a paper-based organization that was losing intelligence as fast as it was collecting it.

“The new system was built with the capability to automate and scan all paper-based information into a relational database that can be mined. An intelligence-gathering organization needs to know what it knows,” Chiaradio said.

By all accounts, the initial work was a major redesign. But the work is far from over. Mueller will need more money for what Chiaradio calls the cleanup phase, during which all of the data repositories that have yet to be redesigned for Trilogy will be either re-engineered or replaced.

Several hundred back-office systems must also be put through the same process, said Chiaradio. One of those is the financial system, which the FBI plans to replace with a unified financial management package.

“The back-office applications are as important to the mission as anything else,” Chiaradio said. “They are the logistics train.”