Troubles in Terrorist Database
- By Wyatt Kash
- August 27, 2008
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
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
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.
Wyatt Kash is the editor in chief of Government Computer News (GCN.com).