US terror threat system crippled by technical flaws

A US$500M effort to find terrorism plots may be in deep trouble

A US House subcommittee is charging that a US$500 million IT project intended to "connect the dots" on terrorists and help prevent another 9/11 is a failure; it can't even handle basic Boolean search terms, such as "and," "or" and "not."

Allegations of waste and mismanagement were outlined in a staff memo and letter (download PDF) from the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, which is part of the Committee on Science and Technology. The material was released last week in what is a usually a quiet month for Congress during its August recess.

The bulk of the subcommittee's charges come from a memo (download PDF) prepared by subcommittee staff about a data integration project called Railhead, which is intended to help intelligence and law enforcement agencies uncover terrorist plots.

Railhead, due to be ready by year's end, was supposed to combine and upgrade existing databases called TIDE (Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment; download PDF) and improve terrorism-fighting capabilities. But the project is in such bad shape -- suffering from delays and cost overruns -- that Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller said, "There may be current efforts under way to close down Railhead completely."

Miller's comment was included in a letter he wrote to Edward Maguire, inspector general for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Miller said he wants Maguire to investigate the project.

"The end result is a current system used to identify terrorist threats that has been crippled by technical flaws and a new system that, if actually deployed, will leave our country more vulnerable than the existing yet flawed system in operation today," wrote Miller.

The subcommittee makes a case for investigation through a variety of documents it obtained, including user-group meeting minutes, e-mails, internal blog postings and technical reports that raise issues with various aspects of the project. The lead systems integrator for Railhead is The Boeing Co.'s Space and Intelligence Systems Mission division.

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