Despite pressure from Congress, the FBI keeps the cost of its Virtual Case File project under wraps.

When Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., thinks about the FBI's repeated failures to overhaul its computer systems, he recalls the movie Groundhog Day, the story of a man doomed to repeat the worst day of his life over and over until he learns his lesson.

"Time and again, [the FBI's technology overhaul] has fallen victim to escalating costs and implementation concerns, mismanagement and so on," Leahy told FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in February. To make matters worse, Leahy said, Congress, which signed the checks that paid for those failures, was often among the last to be told when things went awry.

In no instance was this truer than with Virtual Case File, the FBI's star-crossed attempt to transfer its paper investigative file system into a networked, computerized system, billed as the linchpin of the bureau's modernization efforts. Now it's déjà vu all over again for Leahy, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. As the FBI moves forward with Sentinel, a new attempt that would sew together a host of off-the-shelf applications, it is refusing to share with Congress pertinent details-for example, how much it might cost.

Despite several congressional entreaties, the FBI says it won't put a price on Sentinel. Mueller has denied personal requests from Leahy and fellow committee member Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, for cost estimates and other basic information. Mueller and other FBI officials say the information is "procurement sensitive." If companies knew what the FBI was willing to pay for Sentinel, they would bid at that price and not below it, an FBI spokesperson says.

The bureau won't share with Congress or the Justice inspector general its request for proposals for Sentinel, but it has provided copies to the 45 companies vying for the contract. Without that document, Congress-much less the public-cannot determine what it is spending, how long the FBI will need to implement Sentinel, or what the program will accomplish. The bureau, however, has asked Congress to re- direct $90 million of its current budget to cover the early costs, according to a Senate report.

The FBI says it will reveal Sentinel's estimated cost to Congress, but it might be after the contract is awarded. "At some point, [cost information] will become available," says FBI spokeswoman Megan Baroska.

Two contractors have completed cost estimates for the program. One emerged in June, when U.S. News and World Report reported that Sentinel might cost $792 million. The bureau has denied the estimate, but the magazine stands by its report. FBI officials promised to brief the Judiciary Committee, but no date has been set.

"I'm frankly surprised that they wouldn't be anxious to get as good a relationship with their regulators as they can," says Matthew Blaze, associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania who is familiar with the FBI's record of computer problems.

Leahy and Grassley are two of the FBI's most aggressive watchdogs in the Senate. They have clashed with the bureau over issues such as Ruby Ridge, its treatment of whistleblower Sibel Edmonds, and the quality and capacity of its translation program. But the FBI might expect a close examination of how it buys technology, given its checkered history of fumbled IT projects.

"The FBI did not manage the contractors for . . . [Virtual Case File] very closely," says Blaze, who participated in a working group assembled by the National Academy of Sciences to examine the efforts. "Contractors were really able to get away with whatever they wanted." All the while, Mueller and other FBI officials assured Congress the project was moving toward completion, and dodged tough questions about its health. Several years' work and over $100 million were spent on Virtual Case File before Mueller finally scrapped it in March.

The FBI won't talk price, but it isn't totally silent. The bureau recently an-nounced progress on its enterprise architecture-the underlying policies and plans that will gird the Sentinel effort. Meanwhile, Senate appropriators are attempting to withhold $73 million from the FBI's 2006 budget request intended for Sentinel until "cost estimates are known and program management is in place," according to their June 23rd report. That's a steep price to pay to keep a secret.

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