Hill revives FBI project

An ambitious FBI project that will give its agents the ability to share

and sift through information on active investigations is back on track,

after a new World Wide Web-based strategy persuaded Congress to infuse it

with money.

After being postponed in December when earlier requests for funding

were denied, the project is not only alive but also conceptually transformed,

according to a telecommunications expert who has followed the program since

its inception.

The program's new direction is signaled by its name change — from Information

Sharing Initiative to "e-FBI." The name was changed because the bureau wants

the system to be accessible entirely via the Internet, said the expert,

who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"With e-FBI, they want to sink a lot into Web enabling," he said. "This

is going to be phased in over time. No one in his right mind thinks the

FBI is going to make this jump overnight."

But the technology exists to do this kind of information exchange in

an efficient, secure environment, he said.

FBI officials could not be reached for comment.

Although the committee report does not explain the new direction the

FBI is taking, it does say that "a revised strategy for this initiative

has recently been submitted and is currently under review by the committee."

The new funding and the program's re-designation were included in the

House Appropriations Committee report released June 14. In the report, the

committee recommends that the FBI get $39.3 million next year for the program.

That amount would be in addition to $20 million it is slated to receive

next year in base funding toward electronic crime-fighting efforts and on

top of $80 million it has accrued in prior years for a total of $139 million,

according to the committee's report.

According to the industry expert, that kind of funding will go a long

way toward giving the bureau the system it originally envisioned several

years ago. But the ISI strategy would have depended heavily on legacy phone

systems and would have cost up to $430 million more than its proposed five-year

construction cost.

"With today's technology, we can go much further down the road" for less

money, he said.

Congressional concerns of bureau cost overruns on computer projects seemed

to kill off the program last year. In December, the FBI called off plans

to enter into a contract that would have gotten the ambitious program up

and running when it became apparent the money would not be there.

Congress has kept bureau spending on the program on a tight leash since

it budgeted $20 million toward software and hardware purchases in 1999.

Then, Congress barred the FBI from actually spending money on the project

until congressional appropriators approved plans for the program.

That directive was reiterated in the House committee's June 14 report.

Early last year, when the bureau submitted plans for its Information

Sharing Initiative to the Appropriations Committee, a Justice Department

official acknowledged that the bureau's reputation for managing its computer

project budgets was poor.

Congressional concerns over the program's cost were owed to "the sins

of the past," said Stephen Colgate, assistant attorney general for administration

at the Justice Department.

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