New FBI Computer System Behind Schedule

The FBI's latest attempt to modernize its computers is running behind schedule and its budget already has exceeded the cost of the last failed effort.

FBI Director Robert Mueller and other officials have refused to disclose the anticipated cost of the Sentinel program, which won't be fully in place until 2009. But the FBI has set aside $97 million for it this year and is asking for an additional $100 million in the government spending year that begins Oct. 1.

Last year, Mueller scrapped the Virtual Case File, Sentinel's $170 million predecessor, after consultants pronounced it obsolete and riddled with problems. It had been billed as the final piece of the FBI's computer upgrade, an instantaneous and paperless way for agents and analysts to manage all types of investigations.

The computer overhaul became a priority after the Sept. 11 attacks. Members of Congress and the Sept. 11 commission said modern computers were critical to enabling the FBI and intelligence agencies to "connect the dots" in preventing attacks.

The first two phases of the "Trilogy" project -- deployment of a high-speed, secure FBI computer network and 30,000 new desktop computers -- have been completed at a cost of $600 million.

The first Sentinel contract was to have been awarded by the end of 2005, but that date has been pushed back because "we can't not do it right this time," an FBI official said on condition of anonymity because the bureau still is negotiating with contractors.

Lawmakers who have been critical of the FBI in the past said they are not reassured.

"They either don't have their ducks in a row or they're trying to hide something," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he fears a repeat of the problems that plagued the aborted project.

"Year after year, good money has gone after bad by the truckload as the Justice Department, the FBI and GSA have mismanaged this project," Leahy said. "The administration gave assurances to Congress last year about turning this debacle around, but the evidence for that so far is anything but encouraging."

Spokesman for the two companies bidding for the new work, defense contracting giants Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, declined to answer questions about their proposals or the FBI's timetable.

The FBI abandoned the Virtual Case File after Glenn Fine, the Justice Department inspector general, blamed the bureau's poor planning and management for most of the problems encountered in designing a system to move large amounts of investigative information into new digital databases that could be accessed throughout the FBI.

Many of the management flaws identified by Fine have been fixed, subsequent reviews have found.

Security for the new system also is a concern. A former FBI analyst, Leandro Aragoncillo, was arrested last year on spying charges after authorities said he stole sensitive intelligence reports from FBI computers.

The FBI was supposed to have clamped down on computer access as part of improved internal security following the unmasking of former FBI agent Robert Hanssen as a Russian spy.