Report criticizes FBI on computer project

By Jeff Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010

The FBI's effort to move from paper to electronic files took another hit Wednesday when Justice Department auditors issued their latest, and perhaps most critical, report to date on the long-troubled Sentinel project.

"Sentinel is approximately $100 million over budget and 2 years behind schedule," the report from Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said, and still lacks common features of personal computers and ordinary word-processing software, such as search functions, spell-checking and automatic document saves.

Worse, the IG said, the FBI had spent almost 90 percent of the $451 million currently budgeted for the entire program, "but it will have delivered only two of the program's four phases to its agents and analysts."

The project could cost $350 million more and take six years to complete, the auditors said.

"We found that while Sentinel has delivered some improvements to the FBI's case management system, it has not delivered much of what it originally intended," the report said. "FBI agents and analysts do not have the planned expanded capabilities to search the FBI's case files. Nor can they use Sentinel to manage evidence, as originally intended."

Because the system lacked an auto-save capability, "several users lost partially completed forms and hours of work while using Sentinel," the IG said.

"Users also found the lack of an integrated spell checker unacceptable because most current word processing software includes this feature."On Sept. 16, FBI technology officials had briefed the auditors, telling them how the bureau had mended its ways, throwing out approaches that hadn't worked and instituting new ways to get the mission accomplished.

The IG also found that a pilot program the FBI launched to test elements of the system earned failing grades.

But the auditors did not sound impressed. It may be too late, the inspector general said, to keep refining Sentinel.

"Regardless of the new development approach, it is important to note that Sentinel's technical requirements are now 6 years old, and there have been significant advances in technology and changes to the FBI's work processes during that time."

The report said the FBI "needs to carefully reassess whether there are new, less costly ways of achieving the functionality described in Sentinel's original requirements."

In the meantime, the IG recommended that the FBI focus on parts of the new system that most directly affect its agents and analysts and to "reinstitute and expand several reporting mechanisms intended to measure Sentinel's ongoing progress."

In a brief statement attached to the IG report, the FBI said it concurred with the IG's recommendations and "has already taken steps to implement them."

But later on Wednesday its response was more aggressive.

In an additional statement, FBI Associate Deputy Director Thomas J. Harrington said the auditors' complaints "are all resolved" and knocked the inspector general for continuing "to rely on outdated cost estimates that do not apply to the current FBI plan.

"In the future," the statement said, "the FBI requests that the OIG use these auditing standards in its review of the Sentinel project and not rely on 'interim' reports that do not accurately reflect the status of the project."

But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called the IG's findings "disheartening."

"These stumbles continue to be alarming," Leahy said in a statement. "I have used the Judiciary Committee's oversight authority for years to press the FBI to work aggressively to fix these problems, and I will continue to do so until this expensive and important program is working as it should be."

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