News & Politics

Computer Calamity

The FBI shuts down a major computer upgrade—and the FBI director's legacy might take a hit as a result.

The FBI has (again) put the brakes on a multi-million dollar plan to fix its creaky computer systems.  This will come as little surprise to those who've followed the G-Men's epic quest, and failure, to keep up in the Information Age, replacing their out-of-date computers with a system that can help agents better track criminals and terrorists. But the recent development could have major political consequences.

First, the facts. After an inquiry from Washingtonian, Lockheed-Martin and the FBI acknowledged that the company's work on the Sentinel program had been partially halted. Using federal contracting rules, the agency extended an order it first issued in March that requires Lockheed to stop working on several parts of the system. The extension will keep Lockheed away from FBI systems for another 90 days.

Now, the fallout. For starters, the Obama administration's budget team has already flagged Sentinel as one of the most troubled, poorly performing tech projects in the government. At a time of record deficits, the public is in no mood for stories of wasteful government spending. President Obama has seen his poll numbers plummet as voter anger over enormous spending of all kinds rises. You can bet that White House pressure led the FBI not to give another dime to Lockheed. In March, when the FBI first issued that stop order, the bureau's internal watchdog issued a sobering report, warning that after "more than three years and $334 million," the program's cost "is rising…and the FBI does not have a current schedule or cost estimate for completing the project."  Translation: The FBI has been spending money with no end in sight.

Another wrinkle: Much of official Washington is bracing itself for a blockbuster expose by Dana Priest due in Monday's edition of the Washington Post. It's said to focus on wasteful and inefficient contracts with companies who work for intelligence agencies. Granted, the FBI is principally a law enforcement agency, but the public isn't going to make that distinction. They'll see big Beltway firms winning billions in contracts with little to show for it. It's not clear whether Priest looked at the Sentinel program, but if she did, she'd have found plenty of fuel for this narrative. The troubles of the program, and its failed predecessor, known as Trilogy, are epic.

Third, and perhaps most significantly for political Washington, the decline of the Sentinel program doesn't bode well for the legacy of Robert Mueller, the FBI's long-time director who weathered the storm of 9/11, the war on terror, and was one of the only high-level national security officials to make the jump from the Bush to the Obama administrations. Mueller (who was the subject of a profile in this magazine) wants to see Sentinel to completion, so he can mark it up as a success for his legacy. 


UPDATE: After this article was published, the FBI said in a statement, "The first phase of the FBI’s next-generation case management system, Sentinel, was delivered in June 2007.  It’s currently being used daily by thousands of agents, analysts, and supervisors."

Sentinel has four phases. The FBI adds it "has extended its March 3, 2010, partial stop work order and expanded it to include the remainder of Phase 3.  This decision will allow the contractor to better focus its resources on the deployment of Phase 2 by fall of 2010. By then, the FBI expects that two of the four phases of the project will be delivered." The statement also notes, "Based on the delays associated with the completion of Phase 2, the FBI is assessing the current state of Sentinel and will engage industry subject matter experts in the evaluation of its strategy going forward."

Lockheed-Martin also emphasized that its work on sentinel has not halted completely. 

A spokeswoman said, "Lockheed Martin is committed to the FBI’s law enforcement mission and is continuing to actively support the Sentinel program. The FBI directed Lockheed Martin to focus resources on an enterprise-wide roll out of new Sentinel capabilities during this 90-day time period. This directive follows successful user pilots at several FBI locations.  In addition to supporting the roll out, we are continuing to provide operations and maintenance support for the currently deployed and operational  system, which is being used daily by thousands of agents, analysts and supervisors to perform their work more efficiently."



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