Report: FBI case management system still falls short

IG says while the bureau has spent $405 million of $451 million allotted, toughest challenges remain ahead.

The Justice Department inspector general has found that while the FBI has spent most of the $451 million allocated for an electronic case management system, the bureau has yet to complete the most difficult work on the project.

The IG's report, released Wednesday, is the seventh the office has conducted on the system, known as Sentinel. It expressed lingering concern that FBI agents are in danger of having to do without a fully functioning investigative case management system.

The FBI contracted with Lockheed Martin Corp. in 2006 to install Sentinel, with the expectation it would offer agents an online system for organizing evidence and automating the review of documents. Sentinel was intended to be the official depository for FBI records, allowing agents to share information that might identify links between cases.

As of August, the bureau had spent $405 million of the $451 million slotted for Sentinel and finished only two of four parts, according to Wednesday's report. "We believe that the most challenging development work for Sentinel still remains," the IG wrote.

The FBI's initial plan called for rolling out the system in four phases by 2009, at a cost of about $425 million. But costs rose and schedules were pushed back. In March 2010, the bureau partially halted Lockheed's work on the project, due to concerns about the quality of the company's output. In July, the FBI put the entire project on hold, and recently announced plans for a new strategy that relies more on the federal workforce to develop a case management system.

At the time of the IG's inspection, the working components were not fully automated, according to the report.

"Because Sentinel's four phases have not been completed, FBI agents and analysts can use Sentinel to generate [required] forms, but they must still print the forms to obtain approval signatures, and they must maintain hard copy files with the required approval signatures," the IG wrote. And without the last two components, agents are not able to search FBI case files.

Under the bureau's new plans, FBI personnel will take over direct management of development and reduce its reliance on Lockheed.

Sentinel is not the FBI's first attempt at shifting from a paper-based to digital system for organizing and analyzing cases. In 2005, the bureau abandoned work on the so-called Virtual Case File system, which suffered from vague design requirements, high management turnover and poor oversight, according to earlier IG reports.

"Regardless of the new development approach, it is important to note that Sentinel's technical requirements are now six years old, and there have been significant advances in technology and changes to the FBI's work processes during that time," the IG wrote. "We believe that the FBI needs to carefully reassess whether there are new, less costly ways of achieving the functionality described in Sentinel's original requirements."

In an Oct. 14 letter responding to a preliminary version of the IG report, Chad L. Fulgham, executive assistant director of FBI's IT branch, wrote that the bureau agreed with the inspector's recommendations "and has already taken steps to implement them."

On Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he was disheartened that the IG again had reported that the FBI's effort to digitize case reviews had fallen short.

"Information exchange is critical to protecting our national security. These stumbles continue to be alarming," he 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."