July 14, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

FBI grapples with out-of-date computers

Four years ago, a former FBI project manager lamented the state of the agency's primitive electronic case-management system.

"There's no mouse; there's no icon," the official told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2002, according to a recent government report. "There's no year 2000 look to it. It's all very keyboard-intensive."

Not much has changed since then. According to recent reports, a string of managerial blunders, financial indiscretions and assorted snags have accompanied efforts to modernize the agency's computer systems.

A former government contractor assigned to an earlier incarnation of the upgrades was sentenced Thursday to three years of probation, six months' home detention and $20,000 in restitution after pleading guilty in March to "exceeding authorized access" to FBI records, the agency said. According to court filings, he abused his network administrator privileges and used free hacking software that's readily available on the Internet to crack 30,000 agency user names and passwords.

Despite that latest embarrassment, the FBI says a turnaround is near.

The bureau in March sealed a six-year, $305 million deal with prominent defense contractor Lockheed Martin to start over. For the upcoming year, it's requesting $100 million from Congress to launch the four-phase, 42-month overhaul, known as Sentinel, with the target completion date set for 2009.

"In the past few years we have struggled with our information technology programs," FBI Director Robert Mueller told a Senate committee in May. "However, we have learned hard lessons from our missteps, and we are doing things very differently this time."

For now, Sentinel "appears to be on the right track," with a new crop of management and oversight processes already in place, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine assured the senators in May. But his office has already flagged potential obstacles, such as incomplete staffing, the agency's ability to track and control the project's costs, and the possibility that systems won't be compatible with those of other investigative agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security.

"The bureau's effectiveness hangs in the balance, and the American people cannot afford another fiasco."
--Sen. Patrick Leahy

With that in mind, auditors plan to "aggressively monitor" the project as it proceeds, Fine added.

Critics aren't convinced yet. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary Committee's Democratic co-chairman, said at the May hearing that he remained "very concerned" about progress on what he called an "essential task."

"The bureau's effectiveness hangs in the balance," he said, "and the American people cannot afford another fiasco."

There are plenty of skeptics off Capitol Hill as well. Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, said he didn't see any reason to believe the Sentinel project will be better managed than its predecessors.

"The problem is institutional; when an organization's membership doesn't enjoy feast or famine based on the success of the organization, very little can bring it into focus and create success," he said in an e-mail interview with CNET News.com. "Congressional and public oversight is a weak, weak substitute for competitive pressure."

Computer blamed
The push for computer upgrades at the FBI picked up after the Sept. 11 attacks. Critics, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft, blamed neglected, incompatible systems for possibly hindering investigators' ability to gather and share intelligence on terrorists.

Those limitations arose in large part because the FBI's primary information management system was "designed using 1980s technology (that was) already obsolete when installed in 1995," the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission, wrote in an April 2004 statement (click for PDF).

Those scathing assessments have already led to some changes.

FBI's aging computer woes

In 2001, the FBI launched a massive computer overhaul and has successfully upgraded its network and IT hardware. But the more difficult goal of upgrading its case-management software remains elusive.

May 2001: DynCorp lands $51 million contract to overhaul FBI networks and tech hardware
June 2001: Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) wins $10 million contract to build new system called Virtual Case File
July 2001: FBI official tells Congress that the bureau hasn't had "meaningful improvements" to IT in six years
March 2003: Network overhaul finished after missing target dates
April 2004: IT upgrades completed after some missed deadlines
February 2005: Justice Department reports VCF isn't capable of replacing old system
March 2005: FBI scraps VCF, loses over $100 million
March 2006: FBI awards six-year, $305 million contract to Lockheed Martin
May 2006: DOJ tells Senate panel that Sentinel "appears to be on the right track"

Source: Government Accountability Office, FBI

By April 2004, the FBI completed the first two components of a now-defunct project called Trilogy. After forking over $337 million--nearly $100 million more than originally projected--the agency replaced its employees' desktop computers, more than 13,000 of which were already between 4 and 8 years old during the late 1990s.

The bureau also scrapped an even older network, bearing speeds roughly equivalent to those of a 56Kbps (kilobits per second) modem, and deployed a new "wide area network" that it said enhances the ability of FBI offices and other law enforcement organizations to communicate.

"Without getting into sensitive and classified information," Mueller told senators at a February 2005 hearing, "I can assure you that our ability to intercept and decipher communications and to otherwise monitor criminal activity and gather intelligence is among the best in the world."

But agents continue to struggle with day-to-day tasks related to managing case files and records through a mainframe system that dates to the 1980s. Officials and auditors have called that Automated Case Support, or ACS, system cumbersome, ineffective, "severely outdated" and insufficiently user-friendly.

The ACS system is essentially a repository of hard-copy documents, manually scanned and uploaded for electronic viewing. Information is not readily searchable, and "agents and analysts cannot easily acquire and link information across the FBI," said an Inspector General's report from March.

On average, it takes 13 keystrokes just to bring up a single document, FBI Chief Information Officer Zalmai Azmi said in a phone interview. With single case files containing as many as 100,000 separate documents and pieces of evidence, that's bound to be a serious shortcoming, auditors have said.

"You have to put commands in there; you have to do everything manually," Azmi said, acknowledging that "we don't have any mouse interaction with that version." (To read the full interview with Azmi, click here.)

CONTINUED: Starting Sentinel…
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