Bungled Secret Intelligence IT Project in U.K. Needs Major Inquiry

The Cabinet Office has been criticised over the failure of a multimillion-pound secret service IT project. Here's why it needs a major investigation.

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The Cabinet Office has been criticised over the failure of a multimillion pound secret service IT project.

The Scope project aimed to provide British spies and friendly foreign agents with intelligence data.

But the government last year suddenly abandoned the second phase of the scheme, under which intelligence data would be shared with other government departments. The reasons for the cancellation remain unknown.

Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell, head of the Cabinet Office which is in charge of the project, had said in recent months that he knew "that the way they were planning to do [Phase II] won't work", adding that the project would have to be redrawn.

The Cabinet Office is attempting to cancel the programme's supplier contracts, a difficult move that is likely to result in heavy costs.

It could not provide immediate comment, and declined to disclose which IT suppliers were involved. IBM has been cited by the press as a rumoured lead supplier.

In a parliamentary debate last Thursday that saw some angry exchanges, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs called for an immediate public inquiry into the failures.

"This should be a matter for a major inquiry, and people should be sacked for it. It is a classic example of the culture in the country: the bigger the mess up, the greater the cost, and the higher the rank of the person who presided over the mess up, the greater the rewards," said Andrew MacKinlay, Labour MP, during the debate.

O'Donnell would likely "be awarded a seat in the House of Lords" rather than being blamed for the failure of the project, MacKinlay claimed.

But home secretary Jacqui Smith defended the scrapping of the second phase. "We are very aware of the loss of any public funds, and especially at the current time," she said.

"The decision to terminate the contract was not taken lightly - it was taken after detailed consideration and legal and technical advice."

But Dari Taylor, another Labour MP, said it was "a costly and damaging experience".

"We are talking about highly complicated communications technology and seriously complex science, and an absolute requirement that the system should be secure," she said.

Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said the issue needed to be addressed "as a matter of urgency" because it related to a highly secure environment.

The MPs were debating a report from the Intelligence and Security Committee, published in March.

The report highlighted serious failings, and quoted Sir Gus O'Donnell as saying "we know that the way they were planning to do [Phase II] won't work So we are working actively on ways in which we can achieve those benefits, but probably through rather different routes."

The report said there had been "a general lack of preparedness for full implementation amongst SCOPE partners, and difficulties in providing a secure environment for the deployment of SCOPE overseas". Attempts last year to get the programme back on track had failed.

But the committee noted it "has yet to be provided with details of how the decision to scrap SCOPE Phase II was arrived at, what the cost implications are and what the options are for a replacement system," it said in a terse note on the report.

"We have consistently reported concerns about SCOPE and are appalled that Phase II of the system - on which tens of millions of pounds have been spent - has now had to be scrapped. We sincerely hope that lessons have been learnt from this failure and that they will be used when plans for the future are being drawn up."

The committee vowed to investigate the "serious failure of this important project" and will report over the next year. It demanded more stringent controls and better financial management on any replacement systems and suppliers.

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This story, "Bungled Secret Intelligence IT Project in U.K. Needs Major Inquiry" was originally published by Computerworld UK.

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