FBI CIO: Case management efforts moving forward

The FBI has met about 80 per cent of its case management goals, including a case management database, even though it scrapped a four-year IT project in March (see story), the agency’s CIO said yesterday.

The FBI spent about $104 million on its Virtual Case File (VCF) effort, which was budgeted for $170 million, before the agency identified hundreds of problems with the project and scrapped it. 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 troubled initiative was discontinued, the FBI now has many of the capabilities envisioned for VCF. The FBI has deployed three case management networks for handling information of varying sensitivity, rolled out 60,000 computers and tied together 60 per cent of its old case data in a database called Investigative Data Warehouse, Azmi said during a news conference. That 60 per cent includes all data related to terrorism investigations.

Despite news 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 not 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 report filing, 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 news conference, Azmi talked about Sentinel, which FBI Director Robert Mueller described to a congressional committee last month (see story). In addition to offering case management capabilities, Sentinel will replace FBI applications such as those used to manage criminal informants and track bank-robbery statistics, Mueller said. Azmi plans to call for bids for the first phase of Sentinel by August as part of the FBI’s move toward an enterprise IT plan.

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 workflow functions, document search capabilities, case management and other tools. It also will allow the FBI to distribute the unclassified portions of otherwise classified documents to other law enforcement agencies, Azmi said.

“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 disputed recent reports about VCF and Sentinel, particularly a U.S. News & World Report story this week that said a replacement case management project would cost $792 million. Azmi said he’s never heard that number discussed, but he declined to disclose the FBI’s estimates for Sentinel. An official figure, he said, could influence the bidding process.

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

The FBI worked with SAIC in identifying the problems, Azmi said, arguing that the investigators cited in the report were mistaken. 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 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 effort, Azmi said one major lesson was to complete a large IT project in stages. The first stage of Sentinel is scheduled to be in place about a year after the FBI awards bids, with the four-phase project taking a total of about 40 months, he said. The FBI is also working to get project management certification for about 80 employees, and it has hired an experienced project manager from the CIA to oversee Sentinel.

The FBI will also solicit vendor input about Sentinel before moving ahead with the first phase, Azmi said, because vendors may have better ideas than the agency. “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 rely on 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.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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