FBI puts its modernization bets on Sentinel

The FBI announced last week that it has finally given up on its failed Virtual Case File (VCF) program and will build a successor, called Sentinel, by 2009.

In congressional testimony and a public speech, FBI Director Robert Mueller said the bureau will introduce a replacement case and information management system in four phases during the next 39 to 48 months.

Sentinel is part of a program to modernize the FBI's information technology infrastructure. The new IT infrastructure will help the bureau close internal communication gaps and improve information sharing with other law enforcement and intelligence organizations, Mueller said.

"Our overriding goal is to get the right information to the right people at the right time," he told an audience last week at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

At a hearing last week of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee, Mueller described Sentinel as one of his top priorities.

Lawmakers on the committee, however, grilled Mueller about VCF. "We will not tolerate broken promises for results that are never realized or delivered," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the subcommittee's chairman. "Someone must be accountable for the success or failure of VCF in all the department's programs."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he wanted to know Sentinel's status and "make sure that this is not money down the drain like the last time."

VCF was part of the FBI's Trilogy program to modernize the agency's obsolete computer systems. The $170 million case management system was originally due December 2003, but only one-tenth of the system's planned capability was completed by January 2005.

The system was shelved in March without being implemented.

The Justice Department's inspector general excoriated the failed program last February in an audit report that blamed the program's meltdown on poor management and oversight, design modifications during the project, and bad IT investment practices.

Mueller admitted that VCF was a failure.

Sentinel's first phase will begin by the end of this year, Mueller said. Each phase will introduce new capabilities, transfer existing information and retire legacy functions, he said.

Sentinel will provide a means for all FBI divisions to acquire new services, such as search capabilities, records management and automated workflows, Mueller said. The additions will be made gradually, instead of all at once as was planned with VCF, he said.

Mueller declined to give a price tag for the system or its first implementation phase. He said the cost would be spread over two to four fiscal years and that each phase would be paid for in the fiscal year in which the work starts.

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