Legislators hone in on FBI weaknesses

The FBI came under fire at a Tuesday hearing for some of its approaches to combating terrorism while attempting to maintain Americans' civil liberties and for shoddy progress on upgrading its information technology infrastructure.

Senate Judiciary Committee top Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont emphasized the FBI's participation in domestic spying at the expense of the privacy and civil liberties of U.S. citizens.

A recent report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine revealed that several FBI agents tapped the wrong telephones, accessed the wrong e-mails or continued to listen to conversations a year after warrants had expired. "All of this should concern all who value privacy rights and the free exchange of ideas in our society," Leahy said.

The Office of the Inspector General currently is reviewing allegations of civil rights and civil liberties abuses by the FBI, including possible intelligence violations forwarded to the president's Intelligence Oversight Board and the FBI's use of special secret subpoenas.

"To assist in these challenges, the OIG will continue to attempt to conduct vigorous oversight of FBI programs and provide recommendations for improvement," Fine said.

Though agency officials lauded the FBI for addressing its weaknesses, all agreed that much more work is necessary to keep America secure while safeguarding civil rights.

FBI Director Robert Mueller commended senators for producing a balanced law this year that reauthorized the 2001 anti-terrorism law known as the USA PATRIOT Act. "The FBI has changed dramatically since the terrorist attacks, and we will continue to evolve to meet the emerging threats to our country," he said.

Mueller also said the FBI is attempting to modernize its IT program, including the development of the Sentinel project under contract with Lockheed Martin. The program calls for commercial technologies to produce an integrated system that supports processing, storage and management of paper-based FBI records.

The modernization also includes the development of a mechanism to measure contract performance so that all, or portions, of the Sentinel contract can be terminated if poor performance is identified.

Sentinel is intended to replace the now-defunct Virtual Case File, which was to be the FBI's case-management system but was officially abandoned in March 2005. The FBI spent about $170 million on that system, which was part of the Trilogy program to modernize computer systems.

Linda Calbom, director of financial management and assurance at the Government Accountability Office, identified the FBI's inability to confirm receipt of billed goods and services. Calbom highlighted the FBI's failure to maintain accountability over equipment purchased for Trilogy, resulting in the payment of millions of dollars in questionable contractor costs.

"It is imperative that the FBI correct these weaknesses in order to avoid similar outcomes for its Sentinel and other information technology projects," Calbom said.

Fine said that although the FBI has made progress in streamlining its operations, there is room for improvement. He defined the challenges as the ineffectiveness of IT systems and the agency's difficulties in pursuing law enforcement and intelligence-gathering missions while protecting civil rights.

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