Spending bill puts restrictions on FBI case management project

The fiscal 2008 omnibus spending measure passed by Congress last week puts restrictions on the FBI's Sentinel case management system that reflect lawmakers' concerns over progress on the project.

Language in the measure, signed by President Bush on Wednesday, withholds $25 million in funding until the FBI reports on the results of a Government Accountability Office review of the Sentinel program. The report also calls for the bureau's inspector general to continue to investigate and report on the progress of Sentinel to members of Congress.

Sentinel is the replacement for the FBI's failed $170 million Virtual Case File system, which was supposed to automate its paper-based investigation process. That program was accelerated after reports detailed the bureau's failures to share information with its own agents and with other law enforcement and intelligence agencies about suspicious students taking flying lessons prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The FBI killed Virtual Case File in 2005 after repeated budget overruns, missed deadlines and performance issues.

Lockheed Martin Corp. was awarded a $305 million contract to develop Sentinel in March 2006. The company has completed Phase I, a Web portal feature. A task order for Phase II was awarded in October and includes building the functionality to put case files and other information into the system to facilitate collaboration.

Given the history of the Virtual Case File program, observers said it comes as little surprise that Congress chose to exercise caution with the $425 million Sentinel effort. "When you look at other parts of the same bill, you see this is not particularly new language. Congress is getting increasingly involved in IT programs, particularly large value programs," said Ray Bjorklund, chief knowledge officer for FedSources, a federal marketing research firm in McLean, Va. "Some of the reason is general concerns about information security privacy and data. But on a grander scale, they are becoming increasingly involved in these programs. Because they are so large, complex and mission critical, any hiccup in the program is costly."

In addition to requiring greater oversight from GAO and the inspector general, the omnibus bill also prohibits funding for Sentinel and other FBI technology programs unless the Justice Department certifies that the agency has "appropriate contractor oversight mechanisms in place," and that the program is compatible with the department's overall enterprise architecture.

An FBI spokesperson said the agency anticipated the new restrictions. "Our appropriators consulted with the FBI to ensure that additional reporting requirements would not unduly burden development activities, while still providing additional visibility into key areas of the program," said Cathy Milhoan. "Under the current plan, the provisions will not adversely affect the FBI's work on the system. We will plan accordingly to ensure the provisions will not impede future development. Congressional oversight has actually contributed to improvements to program controls and reporting during and since the successful completion of Phase 1."

In the bill, lawmakers said budget realignments on the Sentinel program were necessary because the Bush administration neglected to recalculate the FBI's budget request for 2008, choosing instead to average the House and Senate recommendations for 2007 and subtract 1 percent. "The work of the FBI in counterterrorism and criminal investigations is too important to be subjected to budget gimmicks and therefore funds have been realigned to mitigate the impact of the salaries and expenses shortfall," the conference report on the bill stated.

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