FBI Director Reports On Delayed Sentinel System - InformationWeek
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FBI Director Reports On Delayed Sentinel System

Robert Mueller tells Congress he'll do whatever's needed to ensure the case management system overhaul gets back on track.

FBI director Robert Mueller told the Senate appropriations committee Thursday that he is "cautiously optimistic" that a $451 million case management system overhaul that's been beset by delays and rising costs is back on track.

Mueller, however, was unable to provide the committee with new cost estimates or a final completion date for the system, which has been under development for almost five years. He did say that the FBI now expects the system, named Sentinel, to be finished sometime in 2011.

Sentinel, which is being developed by a contractor (Lockheed Martin), will eventually replace the FBI's largely siloed case management efforts with an integrated system that will enable agents to more easily search and analyze criminal and national security information. It follows an earlier failed project -- the $170 million Virtual Case File system -- that had been aiming to accomplish a similar goal.

Unlike in the Virtual Case File project, this time around the FBI broke Sentinel into four workable phases to give employees quicker access to parts of the system as it is built and to more readily be able to examine the work being done.

Last fall, however, the FBI began noticing that development tasks were not closing on time, and costs were exceeding planned levels, Mueller said. Eventually, complaints about problems with performance, usability, and network security during a pilot test caused the FBI to issue Lockheed with a partial stop work order last month to allow Lockheed to address the problems.

Mueller revealed that the FBI brought in three outside entities to help uncover the cause of the problems, including Mitre and Booz Allen Hamilton. Those reviews uncovered more than 10,000 deviations from the FBI's accepted software development practices, in addition to other problems.

While not making excuses, Mueller chalked the problems up partially to the project's long development time. " When you have a project that was laid down in concrete four or five years ago, [with] technology changes, business practice changes, and complexity changes, one can expect some minor delays," he said.

The FBI has begun addressing the recent issues, and Mueller now anticipates that enterprise-wide deployment of the rest of phase two -- which includes some important electronic forms and associated workflows -- will take place in the fall, pending the results of a four-week period of tests this summer. In response to a question from Sen. Barbara Mikulski, (D-Md.), Mueller said that he believed Lockheed had received a "sufficient wake-up call," as Mikulski had put it.

If the recent changes don't work, Mueller said he'll do what's needed to ensure Sentinel gets deployed. "If I do, at some point, believe that it is not working, then I'll take whatever steps are necessary on the contract to make sure we push through and get Sentinel on the desks of everyone who needs it," he said.

Despite the problems with Sentinel, Mueller sought to assure the committee that the FBI has become increasingly effective at giving its employees the technology they need, pointing out that the FBI's IT department has deployed 26,000 Blackberrys and developed numerous new databases and technologies to help the agency connect the dots for criminal and terrorism investigations.

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