Congress may put squeeze on FBI data sharing project

Tight budgets and fears of cost overruns may keep Congress from giving the FBI all the money it seeks for a project that would allow agents to share data on crimes under investigation more easily.

Those familiar with the FBI's $430 million Information Sharing Initiative say Congress may decide to fund the project only partially and require the FBI to take a different procurement approach. The FBI requested $58.8 million for ISI for fiscal 2000.

"We are excited by the full potential of this technology," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee handling Justice Deparment appropriations, in a statement prepared for FCW. "The challenge, however, will be in implementing the proposed system to ensure that it does not result in huge cost overruns, as has happened with the last two systems, and that it goes to the field offices who need it most."

Justice has had cost overruns of more than $100 million on its $184 million National Crime Information Center 2000 (NCIC 2000) - an upgrade to a system law enforcement agencies nationwide use to conduct criminal background checks, locate missing persons and find stolen vehicles. And the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), which when completed will make searching for and matching fingerprints of wanted criminals easier and faster, now is expected to cost $640 million, instead of the original estimate of $470 million.

With ISI, FBI offices across the globe will be able to share information needed to solve crimes, ultimately using digital fingerprints, charts, audio files, video files and text-based files on cases under investigation. Eventually, investigators at other federal agencies as well as state and local law enforcement agencies would be able to use ISI systems.

Congress last year gave the FBI $20 million to begin buying software, hardware and services for ISI. But the fiscal 1999 omnibus appropriations bill signed into law last year prevents the FBI from spending any money on the project until congressional appropriators approve the FBI's plans for the initiative.

Gregg urged FBI Director Louis Freeh at an appropriations hearing last week to proceed cautiously with ISI. "Our view is - and you know this - is that you should start out slow," Gregg said.

Freeh told the subcommittee that Congress' concerns on large systems projects were valid. But he said ISI's costs should be more manageable because the FBI will rely on commercial off-the-shelf products to develop the system. NCIC 2000 and IAFIS, on the other hand, have relied heavily on software written to accommodate FBI specifications.

"This technology is available. It's on the shelf. Not all the interconnectivity [is on the shelf], but all the component pieces [are]," Freeh testified. "This is technology that is there. We just don't have it."

Nevertheless, one government source said the appropriations subcommittee is considering two options for the ISI project. One would prohibit the FBI from awarding the ISI contract to a systems integrator but would allow the FBI to spend the appropriated $20 million to upgrade desktops throughout the agency. The other option would allow the FBI to award the ISI contract but require it to develop and deploy the critical information-sharing portions of the project to key bureau offices.

Freeh said that if the FBI does not get full funding for the ISI initiative, the FBI still would benefit from the system. "Each major phase of the project represents a separate set of functionalities and capabilities so that, if funding is not available for the subsequent phases, the investment provides benefit to the FBI," Freeh told the subcommittee.

Peter Higgins, who served as deputy assistant director for engineering at the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services division, said the FBI has designed ISI in a way that if it gets only a portion of what it wants, it still will have improved its information technology resources. "The technical people who would implement these programs have put a stake in the ground so far out from where they are today that if they get halfway there it would be a significant improvement," he said.

Carolyn Morris, the FBI's assistant director for information resources, said the FBI has yet to choose a vendor for ISI and that the bureau is waiting for congressional approval of its plan before selecting a contractor. Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Co. and Science Applications International Corp. have bid on the contract, according to sources.

The FBI plans to take five years to roll out the ISI software and hardware in a 14-step process. One step, or module, would not commence until the previous one is complete.

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