Key U.S. Terrorist Database Program Mired in Controversy

Once touted the as centerpiece of the National Counterterrorism Center's efforts to upgrade the government's terrorist watch list, Railhead program floundering after contractor turf battles over using an Oracle relational database or an Extensible Markup Language model. House Science and Technology Committee's Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee also faults program management and oversight by National Counterterrorism Center officials. Rep. Brad Miller calls Railhead on the brink of collapse after a $500 million investment of taxpayer dollars.

The U.S. House of Representatives is investigating what it calls the technical failure and mismanagement of one of the government's top counterterrorism programs. Dubbed "Railhead," the program was intended to upgrade the U.S. terrorist watch list and improve the integration of U.S. terrorist intelligence from the nation's 16 separate intelligence agencies.

Located at the NCTC (National Counterterrorism Center) in Northern Virginia, the Railhead program was the highly touted centerpiece of the NCTC's counterterrorism programs. The House Science and Technology Committee's Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, though, claims the program is on the "brink of collapse" after an estimated $500 million in taxpayer funding.

According to the investigative panel, the majority of more than 800 private contractors from dozens of companies working on Railhead have been laid off and NCTC officials have "drastically curtailed" the program.

"The program not only can't connect the dots, it can't find the dots," Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller, D-N.C., said Aug. 21. "This is a critical national security program that has been plagued by technical design and development errors, basic management blunders and poor government oversight."

The original plan for Railhead called for it to update and enhance the NCTC's terrorist intelligence database called TIDE (Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment) that provides the backbone of the FBI's consolidated terrorist watch list. Originally designed by Lockheed Martin in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, TIDE is built in Oracle as a relational database.

"This original database, however, suffers from basic design, management and maintenance inefficiencies and problems," states a Subcommittee memo on the Railhead program. "For instance, only about 60 percent of the data, including names and addresses, mentioned in CIA cables provided to NCTC are actually extracted from these messages and placed in the TIDE database."

As private contractors and government employees modified the program, TIDE was further hamstrung by dozens of tables or categories for identical fields of information that significantly limits search functions. In addition, TIDE uses SQL, which the Subcommittee calls a "cumbersome computer code," to query the tables, rows and columns of the database.

"Without a detailed index of the data stored in each table in TIDE, the SQL search engine is blindfolded, unable to locate or identify undocumented data," the memo states. Although the original Railhead design team suggested building a new database in Oracle, Railhead government program managers decided to move forward with the XML model.

A June program "gap analysis" by SRI International found serious shortcomings in the Railhead program.

"The ability to search e-mail and discussion threads, and the ability to search for images and attachments will be absent," the report states. "Advanced search capabilities such as selecting a timeframe for FININTEL [Finished Intelligence] searches and allowing Boolean keyword searches of results will be absent."

The report concluded, "Without these major functions, the system will not fulfill its information sharing mission for the counterterrorism community."

Miller said even if the program is abandoned, he wants an investigation into what happened with Railhead.

"The problems on the Railhead program appear to be depressingly similar to programs on other major IT initiatives which have resulted in schedule delays, increased financial costs and ultimately failure on some projects," Miller wrote to Edward Maquire, Inspector General of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, on Aug. 21. "Turf battles among contractors, particularly between the design and development team, have hampered the sharing of critical technical data that has impaired the success of the Railhead program."