WASHINGTON—Federal Bureau of Investigation agents have finally ditched paper files for a new computer system, an effort that took 12 years and cost more than $600 million.
Federal Bureau of Investigation agents have finally ditched paper files and index cards with the completion of a new computer system, an effort that took 12 years and cost more than $600 million. Evan Perez has details on digits. Photo: Getty Images.
The system, called Sentinel, includes elements resembling Web browsers, with tabs and movable windows, and forms that are filled out in a question-and-answer format similar to consumer tax software.
The FBI announced the completion of the system Tuesday after testing to work out bugs. Portions of it were implemented in recent years, and the bureau recently took the final step of shutting down its old system, which relied heavily on paper.
An FBI special agent demonstrated the system, which went live July 1, to reporters Tuesday. Agents can share files electronically and can track changes made by others. RSS feeds, commonly used in Web browsers to aggregate news topics, can be used to track updates on files.
Agents can also use a search feature, entering a phone number, for instance, to see if it occurs in other active cases or leads. The main page users see resembles Microsoft Outlook, with a calendar that reminds users of deadlines on pending cases. To electronically sign documents, agents insert their security badges into a card reader.
The technology overhaul has been a priority for FBI Director Robert Mueller since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks exposed the bureau’s troubles with information sharing. The FBI acknowledged that relying on paper files inhibited sharing of data among agents in field offices and with headquarters, possibly hurting its chances of thwarting the attacks. Mr. Mueller accelerated plans to replace the unwieldy case-management system with new software.
Since then, however, the FBI’s struggles with technology have become legendary even by the standards of Washington, where agencies often must spend more to meet government requirements instead of using off-the-shelf software.
Still, the federal government has experienced similar struggles in seeking to align incompatible computer system across multiple intelligence agencies. The FBI said Sentinel is being deployed for use by analysts and employees from intelligence and other agencies who work on terrorism cases with the FBI, to aid information sharing.
A 2010 audit by the Justice Department’s inspector general sharply criticized the Sentinel effort, which began in 2005 and was meant to be completed by 2009, casting doubt on whether the bureau could stay within a $451 million budget.
That’s on top of the $170 million—and three years—auditors said was wasted on an earlier technology project called Trilogy that was supposed to deliver software called Virtual Case File.
Mr. Mueller canceled Virtual Case File in 2005 and started Sentinel instead. In July 2010, the FBI issued a stop-work order to contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. and decided to take over the project’s management, because of delays.
The FBI has disputed some of the audit’s figures. On Tuesday, Jeffrey Johnson, FBI assistant director and chief technology officer, said the project came in under budget. The FBI said its budget figures for Sentinel don’t include the cost of government personnel, which is factored into the higher numbers.
One of the biggest hurdles to getting agents to accept the system, Mr. Johnson said, has been their reluctance to believe it’s really happening.
"Given the history of the program, frankly, everybody I met was skeptical," Mr. Johnson said, adding that some agents may continue resisting it simply because they prefer paper. The system is designed, however, to prod agents to enter data into Sentinel from old paper files relevant to cases they are working on. Mr. Johnson said Sentinel has between 18,000 and 21,000 users a day.
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