FBI Outlines Plans For Computer System

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 9, 2005

The FBI laid out its strategy yesterday for creating a more ambitious computerized case management system than the $170 million project it had planned but ultimately abandoned because the program was beset by hundreds of deficiencies.

Zalmai Azmi, the bureau's chief information officer, told reporters at a briefing that the FBI has learned its lessons from the failure of the Virtual Case File system and will not repeat past mistakes as it embarks on a new program, code-named Sentinel. Azmi said the new system will do many of the same things VCF would have done, and more, by the time it is fully implemented in 2009.

"Sentinel is a lot different than VCF," Azmi said, explaining that the new program will include such features as automated workflow, search and records management. Unlike the plans for VCF, Azmi said, "Sentinel is not going to be implemented in one swoop" and will be phased in.

The VCF system was supposed to be part of Trilogy, a $581 million information technology upgrade. The idea was to eliminate the FBI's notoriously cumbersome computer systems and give agents a better way to process and share information. Azmi said other aspects of Trilogy have gone well, despite the failure of VCF.

Azmi declined to say how much Sentinel will cost, but he denied a report this week by U.S. News & World Report that put the total at $792 million. "That number is completely incorrect," he said. U.S. News yesterday stood by its report.

Although disputing the magazine's figure, Azmi said he cannot disclose the actual cost estimates because vendors will soon be competing to be the lowest bidder. However, he did say an initial estimate by an independent information technology company called Aerospace Corp. had come in several hundred million dollars higher than the firm's later estimate.

Whatever the estimate, Sentinel, with its expanded scope, will almost certainly cost more than the $170 million that had been budgeted for VCF. Azmi said that the $170 million figure had been too low and that VCF would have cost more had it been seen through to completion.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III formally ditched the VCF system in March after concluding that even before its completion it was outdated and was not performing as intended. A report by investigators for the House Appropriations Committee found that doubts about the system were raised internally as early as 2003 but that the FBI forged ahead even as problems mounted. More than $100 million was ultimately spent on VCF.

Azmi took issue with an assertion -- contained in the Appropriations Committee report and detailed in The Washington Post this week -- that the FBI had failed to share with its vendor, Science Applications International Corp., a list of 400 deficiencies in VCF. Azmi said bureau officials and company representatives came up with the list jointly at meetings in March 2004.

John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, said investigators will talk with FBI officials about any specific concerns but that the overall point of the report remains the same.

"I don't think it changes the fundamental conclusion that the system is broken and we spent a lot of money that we shouldn't have," he said.

An SAIC spokeswoman declined to comment.

For Sentinel, Azmi said the FBI is more likely to rely on off-the-shelf technology that is already available, rather than starting from scratch.

The bureau must now choose a contractor to perform work on Sentinel. A request for proposals will go out this summer, and the FBI expects to name a winner by the end of the year. The FBI said it will use a government-wide acquisition contract with the National Institutes of Health to award the Sentinel work. Under such contracts, a limited number of companies are approved to do information technology work under certain pre-arranged terms. SAIC is among the eligible companies.

After the contract is awarded, the Sentinel system will be implemented in four phases, with the first to be completed by the end of 2006, Azmi said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company