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6/3/2005
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Tech Vs. Terrorism

The FBI stumbled badly in modernizing its IT to help fight terrorism. Here's how the bureau plans to get on track.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Virtual Case File system was supposed to be the future of the FBI's crime-fighting and anti-terrorism operations, a Web-based case-management application that bureau investigators would use to search and analyze all information relating to criminal and national-security cases. Instead, it turned into an expensive lesson in outdated IT practices, in the depth and breadth of the dysfunction that plagued the bureau's IT management, and in the challenges that lay ahead.

Sentinel will let the FBI move off many legacy systems, CIO Azmi says.

Sentinel will let the FBI move off many legacy systems, CIO Azmi says.

Photo by David Deal
Initiated in June 2001, the Virtual Case File system suffered from having to adapt to the FBI's dramatic post-9/11 mission change, which called upon the bureau to focus on preventing terrorism as much as fighting more conventional crimes. Yet the technology also fell victim to much more workaday problems, including a shuffling of FBI CIOs and project managers, ever-changing project requirements, and an insistence on building the system from the ground up as a customized application. The result was a $170 million bust that the bureau tested briefly, then put on the shelf indefinitely.

Rather than trying to fix the Virtual Case File software, the FBI over the past couple of years has initiated an extensive overhaul of IT management. The first big test of this makeover is Sentinel, an electronic information-management system under development that's designed to help the bureau leverage newer, standardized IT. Sentinel will test more than whether the FBI can finally get the file-sharing ability envisioned for the abandoned Virtual Case File project. It also will reveal whether the FBI's efforts in recent years to create a better-run IT department and a modern IT platform have worked. CIO Zalmai Azmi sees Sentinel--the FBI's first software platform built on a Web-friendly, services-oriented IT architecture--as nothing short of a way for the bureau to finally break free from the shackles of its outmoded IT systems.

"Sentinel is my flagship moving forward and paving the path for me in delivering capabilities," says Azmi, who has spent six years as an IT executive in the Justice Department. "With every service I deliver with Sentinel, I'll be looking at my legacy systems and retiring applications."

As the FBI develops each phase of Sentinel, it will replace corresponding legacy systems, the most significant being its Automated Case Management System. Other applications to be retired include the Criminal Informant Management System, Bank Robbery Statistical Application, and Financial Institution Fraud and Integrated Statistical Reporting Analysis Application. One predicted benefit of Sentinel is its support for XML standards, which can ease information sharing within the FBI and with other agencies.

Sentinel represents an ambitious first test for the FBI's new IT strategy. The FBI expects by midsummer to issue a request for proposals for Sentinel, which Azmi says will be comprised 80% to 90% of off-the-shelf software that will, among other things, let FBI agents and analysts share case files, search a variety of law-enforcement and intelligence databases, and automate workflow. By contrast, the Virtual Case File system relied on a great deal of custom-coded software, a reflection of the bureau's build-first culture and belief that off-the-shelf software couldn't meet its needs. Although the FBI hasn't disclosed when it will award a contract, Azmi says the first of Sentinel's four phases will be due 12 months after the contract is signed. The time line for the remaining phases stretches over the next four years.

The Sentinel project follows FBI Director Robert Mueller's recent moves to dramatically increase the CIO's power and influence. In February, Mueller gave Azmi overall control of the FBI's IT budget and began consolidating several operations under the CIO's office. This means that where Azmi this year controls $248.7 million of the bureau's IT spending, in the coming fiscal year he'll control more than $500 million. The FBI's overall budget, which has risen from $3.3 billion in fiscal 2001 to $5.1 billion in fiscal 2005, is proposed to be $5.7 billion in fiscal 2006. If this is the case, Azmi's office would be responsible for about 9% of the bureau's spending.

Consolidating IT spending may seem far removed from the front-line concerns of agents' basic inability to access and share information, but Azmi sees his expanded financial responsibilities as a significant step. Soon after being appointed acting CIO in December 2003, Azmi called for an inventory of the bureau's IT assets and created a master list of applications, networks, databases, and other key IT components. "We found that one of the reasons we have the stovepipes was because different technology was being developed by different agencies within the bureau," Azmi says. The "acting" designation was dropped from his title in May 2004, and he's held the CIO post longer than anyone else since 9/11. "Every division had its own information-technology budget, network, brand of computers, and software."

To see why Sentinel is such an important--and difficult--project for the bureau, it's necessary to understand why information technology is so strategic to the FBI's changing mission and why and where it has stumbled in recent IT projects. In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, it became clear the FBI needed to radically change how it works to prevent terrorism after nearly a century focusing on investigating crime. Lag time in communication and data sharing was no longer acceptable. "The FBI realized after 9/11 that it wanted to share data in real time," says Jeff Vining, a Gartner analyst covering homeland security and law enforcement and a former FBI lawyer.

The FBI needed better technology to fit its expanded responsibilities. "After 9/11, the mission changed to prevention," Azmi says. "In preventative mode, nothing's happened, so you have to do thorough analysis, and you have a lot of what-if scenarios. For that you need really good technology."

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