Senators seek to fast track FBI's Sentinel

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked FBI Director Robert Mueller today why it will take nearly four years for the bureau to get its new comprehensive data-management system up and running.

The FBI was scheduled to issue a contract for the Sentinel program by the end of this year and complete the four-phase implementation in 40 months, Mueller said.

But lawmakers suggested that was too far on the horizon. Having the system operational by 2009 is “an awful long ways away,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the committee’s chairman. He asked Mueller whether it was realistic to set up a counterterrorism infrastructure if the information technology to support the system was not in place.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked Mueller if the country could afford to wait that long and if Congress could do anything to speed the process.

But Mueller said that implementing Sentinel will simply take time because the FBI has to triage more than 100 existing systems and then create new ones for Sentinel. The bureau must also learn to handle large projects the way a large corporation would, he said.

The country will see security benefits from Sentinel before 2009, Mueller said. For example, the first phase of the program is slated for completion by the end of 2007, he said.

Sentinel will replace the FBI’s failed $170 million Virtual Case File (VCF) management system. VCF was part of the FBI's Trilogy program to modernize the agency's obsolete computer systems.

Originally due in December 2003, the program was shelved in March without being implemented. In a February audit, Glenn Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, blamed the program's meltdown on poor management and oversight, design modifications during the project, and bad IT investment practices.

The FBI needs Sentinel because the Trilogy program didn’t account for the database structure necessary to store and share millions of counterterrorism documents, Mueller said.

He declined to give a price estimate for Sentinel, arguing that mentioning a price could skew the bidding process. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said that the committee would not go along with an exorbitant price tag for the system.

After the committee members spoke with Mueller, a panel of current and former senior law enforcement and homeland security experts said that the FBI can’t achieve its goals without improving its IT infrastructure.

“The upgrade of the FBI’s information technology systems is one of the most critical challenges facing the FBI,” Fine testified. “Without adequate systems, the FBI will not be able to perform its job as effectively and fully as it should.”

Inadequate IT resources have prevented the FBI from sharing information with federal, state, local and private-sector partners, Fine wrote. “The FBI’s ability to rapidly and fully share investigative information is limited because of its inability to implement the VCF,” he wrote.

Rapid turnover in important senior positions have also hurt the FBI's ability to manage IT effectively, particularly Trilogy, Fine wrote.

The FBI also must strengthen the IT equipment, staff and training at the Terrorist Screening Center, a multi-agency initiative that the bureau manages, Fine wrote. The center provides continuous screening of individuals against a consolidated terrorist watch list.

The center can't guarantee that its watch list information is accurate, Fine testified. Its IT Branch did not provide sufficient leadership and could not hire enough qualified staff, he wrote. The IG office has made 40 recommendations on how the screening center can fix the problems, he testified.

Fine's office expects to issue a report by Aug. 1 on the center’s support of Secure Flight, the passenger screening system under development at the Homeland Security Department’s Transportation Security Administration. Secure Flight is slated to receive an extra $75 million in federal funds in fiscal 2006.


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