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FBI begins to deploy Sentinel system

FBI Director Robert Mueller told senators Wednesday that a much-anticipated electronic case management system is finally being deployed to agents across the country, but he was unable to give a timeline for when it will be fully operational.

Beginning this week, field agents have started using the Sentinel investigative case management system, Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The heart of the system is in place," he said.

The FBI in March issued a partial stop-work order to Sentinel prime contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., after the Justice Department's inspector general reported that the bureau accepted delivery of the system even though agents knew it had serious problems.

Sentinel is intended to move agents from a paper-based to a computer-based system for managing criminal investigation cases and was launched after the FBI failed to develop software known as the Virtual Case File system. The IG report estimated that the cost of the Sentinel program had risen from an original estimate of $425 million to about $450 million.

The FBI's partial stop-work order was intended to resolve problems with the second development phase of the Sentinel system. The second phase is now being rolled out and should be fully deployed by the fall, Mueller said Wednesday.

But Mueller was unable to say when the third and fourth phases of the system will be deployed, a step backward from previous testimony. In April, Mueller told the Senate Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee that the system would be fully developed by 2011.

At the hearing, Mueller said the FBI is examining whether the capabilities desired in the follow-on phases can be achieved by the bureau's information technology employees rather than contractors.

Judiciary Committee members expressed alarm about the program's troubles.

"The FBI continues to struggle with efforts to modernize its technology and information-sharing systems, wasting valuable time and precious taxpayer money," Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said. "The Sentinel program appears to be the latest in a series of FBI technology initiatives to fail."

"I was distressed to learn that the FBI has felt it necessary to suspend work orders and essentially start over yet again," Leahy added. "While it is a good sign that the bureau is taking affirmative steps to take control of the situation, it is alarming that we have again gotten to this point."

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he has not received adequate answers from the FBI regarding the ultimate cost and timeline for Sentinel, despite repeated requests. "I find all of this uncertainty in a major procurement very concerning," he said.

Under questioning by Grassley, Mueller said the total cost of Sentinel will not exceed $1 billion. He added that the FBI still has to decide whether it will try to recoup money from Lockheed Martin.

On another front, Mueller confirmed that agents are under investigation for cheating on a test about the bureau's investigative guidelines.

Mueller said he expects a letter from the IG showing that hundreds of agents were potentially involved in cheating. But he said he does not know the exact number of agents involved, adding that he does not believe the IG knows the number either.

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