Public enemy No. 1: IT flaws

Inadequate systems keep the FBI from doing its job, homeland security experts tell Congress.

The FBI cannot achieve its mission of protecting the country without improving its information technology infrastructure, a panel of law enforcement and homeland security experts told lawmakers July 27.

"The upgrade of the FBI's information technology systems is one of the most critical challenges facing the FBI," Glenn Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Without adequate systems, the FBI will not be able to perform its job as effectively and fully as it should."

The FBI has made improving its IT a priority since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, FBI Director Robert Mueller said. The agency has strengthened the position of chief information officer, developed an IT strategic plan and enterprise architecture, and created the Office of IT Program Management, he said.

While noting that the FBI has made progress in improving its IT, lawmakers took the agency to task once again for its most recent and glaring IT failure — the $170 million Virtual Case File (VCF) system.

VCF was part of the FBI's Trilogy program to modernize its obsolete computer systems, including the Automated Case Support (ACS) system, which was installed in the mid-1990s but based on 1980s technology.

"Perhaps the most disturbing report on the progress of reform at the FBI has been the failure to install a new information technology system," said Lee Hamilton, former vice chairman of the 9-11 Commission.

William Webster, FBI director during the Carter and Reagan administrations, told the panel that ACS is outdated.

"The biggest challenge, in my view, is to confront, in a rational way, the consequences of an archaic electronic data system that preceded the Patriot Act and would be considered obsolete by any modern enterprise," Webster said.

Specifically, the FBI needs a faster and more precise search engine to connect the dots in massive amounts of data that could help prevent future attacks, Webster said.

Originally due in December 2003, VCF was shelved in March without ever having been implemented. In a February audit, Fine blamed the program's meltdown on poor management and oversight, design modifications during the project, and bad IT investment practices.

Rapid turnover in important senior positions has hurt the FBI's ability to manage IT effectively, particularly Trilogy, Fine said. From November 2001 to February 2005, the FBI had five CIOs and 10 project managers for Trilogy, he said.

The FBI also must strengthen the IT equipment, staff and training at the Terrorist Screening Center, a multiagency initiative that the bureau manages, Fine said. The center uses a consolidated terrorist watch list to track individuals.

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

Fine's office also is studying 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.

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

No shortcut for Sentinel

The FBI is scheduled to issue a contract for Sentinel, the bureau's new data management system, by the end of this year and complete the four-phase implementation by 2009, FBI Director Robert Mueller (right) said. But lawmakers suggested that date was too far off.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, said members would not go along with an exorbitant price tag for Sentinel, the Virtual Case File system's replacement. Mueller declined to give a cost estimate for Sentinel, arguing that mentioning a price could skew the bidding process.

But he said implementing Sentinel will take time because the FBI has to evaluate more than 100 existing IT systems and create new ones. The United States will see security benefits from Sentinel before 2009, Mueller said, adding that the first phase of the program is slated for completion by the end of 2007.

He told the committee that "Sentinel will pave the road, starting with our legacy case management system, for subsequent transformation of all legacy applications to modern technology under our enterprise architecture."

— Michael Arnone

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