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FBI abandons old computer system, tries again

After pulling the plug on its failed Virtual Case File system, the FBI tries again with a new project called Sentinel.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read
The FBI has formally begun the process of trying to replace its $170 million case-management software with something that will work.

The bureau on Tuesday announced it had contacted 40 selected contractors asking for bids on creating the project, which is being called Sentinel and will succeed the now-defunct Virtual Case File system.

An effort to modernize FBI case management systems that relied on paper and antiquated computer hardware, the VCF was supposed to usher agents into the 21st century by allowing them to more easily share information. Instead, it turned into a flop that ended with public finger-pointing between contractor SAIC and top bureau officials.

A May 2004 report (PDF here) from the National Academies found "inadequate" management of VCF by the bureau and warned that if the system were activated all at once as planned, it would run a "very high risk" of crippling failure.

FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted to Congress in February that at least $104.5 million had been lost on VCF and could not be reused on a successor system. A month later, Mueller officially pulled the plug.

In addition to handling any technical challenges, the bureau will have to convince Congress that it can avoid repeating the same mistakes it made with VCF. One recent article in U.S. News and World Report reported that Sentinel might cost a whopping $792 million--a sizable check even for a federal agency with a budget as flush as the FBI's.

So far the FBI isn't talking about Sentinel's expected cost. A brief statement released Tuesday said only: "Sentinel will further enable the FBI to achieve its mission priorities by enhancing information access and promoting information sharing with law enforcement and intelligence community members."

The requirement for Sentinel is similar to that of the defunct VCF system: namely, to update the FBI's case management software, replace paper with electronic files, and link multiple databases for quick searches.

"What the agent on the street does not have is a user-friendly format for inputting investigative and intelligence information into his or her computer," Mueller said in February. "Instead, the agent faces a cumbersome, time-consuming process of preparing a paper record of that information, seeking the necessary approvals, then uploading the document into an existing database."

The FBI did not release the names of the companies invited to bid nor any information on the system's specifications.