Troubles in Terrorist Database

A variety of technical flaws in an upgrade of the system that supports the government's terrorist watch list has drawn congressional fire and raised concerns that the entire system might be in jeopardy.

The concerns are over a program called Railhead, which was intended to improve the sharing, fusing and analysis of terrorism-related intelligence governmentwide. Railhead was being designed to be the successor to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, which is the central repository for information on international terrorists.

Lockheed Martin hastily built the relational database management system using an Oracle platform in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. But in the years since, the system has suffered from a growing number of contractors and government employees attempting to expand and enhance the database without properly taking into account its architecture and design rules.

As a result, dozens of undocumented and duplicate database tables make search queries increasingly unreliable, according to a preliminary investigation report submitted to the House Science and Technology Committee's Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee.

The Railhead program was developed to address many of those problems and improve the database's ability to share and combine information for government analysts. But the Railhead program, led by Boeing and SRI International, has run into significant design and execution problems.

Initial plans to replace the existing database were scrapped in favor of converting the system to use Extensible Markup Language. But one of two Railhead design teams raised concerns that XML would substantially increase the size of data files and slow transmission times to the 30 networks that access the system.

Concerns about the system's security, the fact that certain data wouldn't move to the new system, and issues concerning whether the system would properly handle unclassified but sensitive data compounded the design delays. Recent software testing failures, though normal for a project of this nature, raised further questions about whether its overall design had deeper flaws.

The problems came to a head in recent weeks. The government has fired most of the 862 contractors from a variety of companies who were working on the project, according to a report in the Aug. 22 Wall Street Journal. Next steps for the program, valued at half a billion dollars, are now up in the air. Calls to Boeing; SRI International; and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is responsible for the system, were not returned.

Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of the House subcommittee that conducted the investigation, has sent a letter to ODNI's inspector general requesting an investigation into the technical failures.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash is the editor in chief of Government Computer News (


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