Fatal flaws found in terrorism database

Congressional investigation reveals one of the country's most important terrorism databases is suffering from mismanagement and technical flaws.

Stephanie Condon Staff writer, CBSNews.com
Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.
Stephanie Condon
3 min read

One of the country's most important terrorism databases is on the verge of failure after suffering from gross mismanagement and technical design flaws that went ignored for months, a congressional investigation found.

A congressional committee on Thursday called for an investigation into a program called "Railhead," which was supposed to upgrade the National Counterterrorism Center's integrated terrorist intelligence database, called Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE). The database serves the United States' 16 separate intelligence agencies, and as of January, contained more than 500,000 names (PDF), according to the NCTC. The program has cost an estimated $500 million.

Railhead was also meant to improve TIDE Online, an unclassified version of the TIDE database, and NCTC Online, a classified database of terrorist information and intelligence reports available to counterterrorism analysts.

However, officials at the NCTC began making drastic changes to the Railhead program in recent weeks, according to the House Science and Technology Committee, including laying off hundreds of private contractors working on the program. The number of contractors has shrunk from more than 800 to just a few dozen. The state of the program is now in jeopardy.

Representative Brad Miller, chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee's Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, sent a letter (PDF) Thursday to the Inspector General of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence requesting an investigation into Railhead's near-collapse.

"Potentially hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted, delivery schedules have slipped, contractor employees have been laid off," he wrote. "The end result is a current IT 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."

Miller noted the problems with TIDE and Railhead stem from "fundamental design flaws," namely their reliance on Structured Query Language (SQL) to search the database. SQL is a computer code that uses sentence structures to conduct queries, as opposed to using text-based searches, like search engines such as Google do.

Due to faulty searches, tens of thousands of CIA messages to the NCTC have not been properly processed or reviewed, or may not have even reached the TIDE database.

On top of that, the TIDE database has reportedly crashed several times in recent months, delaying the delivery of updated terrorist intelligence data to the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center.

While TIDE already has problems, Railhead appears to just exacerbate them: The Railhead initiative would significantly downgrade the NCTC Online's capabilities by preventing access to any intelligence community Web sites or data resources, such as sites for the CIA, DIA, or FBI.

The project is not only flawed but also behind schedule. Thirty-four of Railhead's 72 "action items" are past due, and two are behind schedule. Ten more tasks--five of them costing more than $92 million--are "significantly off-task."

Unnamed sources involved with the Railhead project also told Congress that some of the project's deals with private contractors were inappropriate. A memo (PDF) produced by congressional staff cites sources who allege that SRI International's involvement in the project created a conflict of interest because SRI program director Earl Lyberger has close ties to Railhead's program manager Dirk Rankin.

Additionally, the staff's sources allege that the government misused funds by spending nearly $200 million to retrofit a building in Herndon, Va., belonging to one of the project's main contractors, Boeing.

Representatives from Boeing and SRI did not respond to requests for comments.

Miller noted in his request for an investigation into the program that there may be efforts under way to close down Railhead completely.