July 14, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

FBI grapples with out-of-date computers

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The first phase of Sentinel, according to planning documents, is supposed to yield a Web-based portal that will allow investigators a more streamlined way of accessing and entering data in the existing case-management system.

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Later, the agency plans to begin a transition to a fully paperless process and to install a more sophisticated database designed to allow agents to "connect the dots" among cases. The final goal is to retire the ACS system in favor of an entirely new--and exclusively electronic--case management system that eradicates the need for paper files.

That objective is not unlike that of the failed Virtual Case File, or VCF, project, which the FBI discontinued last year after three years of development, expenditures of $104.5 million and harsh criticism from auditors. Although VCF and Sentinel have seemingly similar aims--namely, a Web-based, ultimately paperless interface--the Inspector General's March report said it was unclear how much of the investment in VCF could be directly applied to Sentinel.

The FBI, for its part, has made a concerted effort to distance Sentinel from its predecessors.

Speaking before senators in May, Mueller said he expected the new project to offer "greater capabilities" and said he wanted "to emphasize that the Sentinel program is not a reincarnation of the Virtual Case File."

Keeping costs in check has not been the FBI's strong suit, according to auditors of its activities.

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that faulted the FBI for squandering $10.1 million on "questionable contractor costs," including customized ink pens and highlighters for training sessions, and misplacing more than $7 million in equipment related to the Trilogy project.

The agency said it's determined not to repeat those mistakes with the Sentinel program. Among its plans are frequent meetings with the contractors, biweekly updates on the variations in the intended project schedule, financial incentives for meeting performance standards, and a new program office slated to include 76 staffers dedicated exclusively to the project.

The goal, CIO Azmi said, is to reverse previous pitfalls "so there are no rogue operations and there are no ad hoc developments within the bureau."

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.

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