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FBI grilled again over computer upgrade woes

Some politicians are still haunted by the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on a failed project in recent years and seek assurance it won't happen again.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), at left, greets FBI Director Robert Mueller before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday.
Anne Broache/CNET

WASHINGTON--The FBI's legacy of botched computer upgrades is still haunting some politicians on Capitol Hill.

At a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, former committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) grilled FBI Director Robert Mueller about what he deemed a "fiasco"--a failed case-management system overhaul known as Virtual Case File.

Sensenbrenner accused Mueller of "continuously frustrating" his committee's attempts to find out how much money had been spent before the failed program was abandoned about three years ago. The FBI has since begun a new effort called Sentinel, whose first phase--a Web portal of sorts for investigators--went live in June last year.

"I want to know how much money was wasted," Sensenbrenner told Mueller.

About $197 million was spent on the program before the FBI opted to "cut its losses" and discontinue VCF, Mueller said. Of that amount, his agency believes it can "recover" about $100 million, but he conceded that hasn't actually happened yet.

"What management techniques have you learned from the fact that the Virtual Case File effort went off the cliff and the taxpayers got stuck with a pretty significant bill, that you're applying to make sure this doesn't happen with Sentinel?" Sensenbrenner asked Mueller.

Mueller said the agency now has help from technology and business process experts that it didn't have when the Virtual Case File project began. He said the agency has also set "firm requirements" so that contractors have clearer guidance on what to build. He described the first phase of Sentinel as "successful, on time, and on budget" and said he expected the same of the second phase.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) also urged Mueller to devote more attention to digitizing years of paper FBI records, arguing that if a company like Google can digitize university library volumes in a matter of months, the federal agency has no excuse for inaction. "I don't know if you've done a cost-benefit analysis," she said, "but it seems to me (it's) clear that if you move into the modern age, your agents are going to be optimized in terms of their performance."

Mueller said he agreed, noting that the agency has begun by digitizing all of its terrorism files and placing "emphasis particularly on those areas where we need to have access to those records digitally immediately."