FBI CIO: Case management project moving forward

After much criticisim, agency says it is progressing on Virtual Case File system

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has met about 80 percent of its case management goals, including a case management database, even though it scrapped a four-year IT project in March, the agency's CIO said on Wednesday.

The FBI spent about $104 million on its Virtual Case File (VCF) project, which was budgeted for $170 million, before scrapping it because of hundreds of problems the agency identified with the project in March 2004. VCF was supposed to allow FBI employees to more quickly share data about cases in progress, including terrorism investigations, and to help FBI agents around the country better search documents and connect leads coming from diverse sources.

But CIO Zalmai Azmi said that even though the FBI scrapped VCF in March of this year, the FBI now has many of the capabilities envisioned in VCF. The FBI has deployed three case management networks for handling information of varying sensitivity, deployed 60,000 computers and tied together 60 percent of its old case data in a database called Investigative Data Warehouse, Azmi said during a press conference. That 60 percent includes all data related to terrorism investigations, he said.

Despite press reports of anonymous FBI officials saying VCF was mostly a waste of money, Azmi said the agency "learned a lot" from the project, which was awarded to Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) Asked how much value the FBI received from the VCF spending, Azmi said he could put a dollar figure on it. But the project's $170 million budget was inadequate, he said, because it didn't include money for needs such as worker training, maintenance and disaster recovery.

The primary thing the FBI still needs after scrapping VCF is automated filing of reports, Azmi said. FBI agents still have to get a paper-based signature to file reports, but a larger-scope IT project called Sentinel will change that, he said.

During much of the press conference, Azmi repeated information about Sentinel, which FBI Director Robert Mueller described to a congressional committee in May. The Sentinel project, in addition to case management capabilities, will replace other FBI applications, such as those used to manage criminal informants and track bank-robbery statistics, Mueller said in May. Azmi plans to call for bids for the first phase of Sentinel, part of the FBI's move toward an enterprise IT plan, by August, he said.

The FBI's enterprise IT architecture will include a strategic IT plan, training for IT workers, and several IT governance boards, according to the agency. Sentinel will include automated work-flow functions, document search capabilities, case management and other tools, the FBI said. The new project will allow the FBI to distribute the unclassified portions of otherwise classified documents to other law enforcement agencies, Azmi added.

"Over the next five to six years, we will migrate all of our legacy applications to a state-of-the-art platform," he said. "There is a huge difference in terms of capabilities between VCF and Sentinel."

Azmi also used the press conference to dispute recent press reports about VCF and Sentinel. He disputed a U.S. News & World Report story this week that said a replacement case management project would cost $792 million [m], saying he's never heard that number discussed. Azmi declined to disclose the FBI's estimates for Sentinel, saying an announced number could influence the bidding process.

Azmi also took issue with press reports this week based on a confidential report by investigators of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, which said the FBI didn't disclose to SAIC that it had found 400 problems with the software package after the company delivered VCF in December 2003.

The FBI worked with SAIC in identifying the problems, Azmi said. The investigators were mistaken, he said. Although The Washington Post reported that the FBI had several warnings about VCF before shutting it down, Azmi said he asked SAIC to stop working on the project around May 2004, only about two months after the FBI and SAIC review of the project. The agency later hired consultant Aerospace Corp. to investigate the project.

Asked what the FBI learned from the VCF project, Azmi said one major lesson was to complete a large IT project in stages. The first stage of Sentinel is scheduled to be completed about a year after the FBI awards bids; with the four-phase project taking about 40 months, he said. The FBI is also working to get about 80 employees project management certification, and it has hired an experienced project manager from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to oversee Sentinel, he added.

The FBI will solicit vendor input about Sentinel before moving ahead with the first phase, Azmi said. The FBI has ideas of what it wants first, but vendors may have better ideas, he said. "They may come back with a proposal, because we do want to encourage innovation," he added.

Azmi repeated earlier FBI comments that the goal is to mostly use commercial, off-the-shelf software for most of the Sentinel project. But the agency and its contractors may have to build parts of the system. "One product will not do all we want to do with our case management system," he said.