The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Pre-Acquisition Planning for
and Controls Over the Sentinel Case Management System

Audit Report 06-14
March 2006
Office of the Inspector General



In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on March 8, 2005, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) discussed the FBI's plan to develop and implement a state-of-the-art case management system called Sentinel over 4 phases taking about 42 months. The Sentinel project replaces the FBI's unsuccessful efforts over the previous 3 years to develop an automated case management system called the Virtual Case File (VCF), which was intended to replace its obsolete Automated Case Support (ACS) system. Because of the FBI's failed $170 million VCF project, congressional appropriations and oversight committees questioned whether the FBI could successfully develop and implement a case management system of Sentinel's magnitude.

Because of the importance of the Sentinel project, the congressional appropriations committees and the FBI Director asked the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to monitor and periodically report on the FBI's development of Sentinel. Over the past few years, the OIG and others have reviewed various aspects of the FBI's information technology (IT) infrastructure and cited a critical need for the FBI to modernize its case management system. In previous reports, the OIG concluded that current FBI systems do not permit agents, analysts, and managers to readily access and share case-related information throughout the FBI, and without this capability, the FBI cannot perform its critical missions as efficiently and effectively as it should.

In its mission-needs statement for Sentinel, the FBI stated that its current case management system must be upgraded to utilize new information technologies by moving from a primarily paper-based case management process to an electronic records system. The FBI noted that this transition would enable agents and analysts to more effectively perform their investigative and intelligence duties.

The FBI's attempt to move from a paper-based to an electronic case management system began with the Trilogy project in mid-2001. The objectives of Trilogy were to update the FBI's aging and limited IT infrastructure; provide needed IT applications for FBI agents, analysts, and others to efficiently and effectively do their jobs; and lay the foundation for future IT improvements. Trilogy consisted of upgrading the FBI's: (1) hardware and software; (2) communications network; and (3) the five most important investigative applications, including the antiquated ACS. The first two components of Trilogy were completed in April 2004 at a cost of $337 million, almost $100 million more than originally planned. Among other improvements, the FBI enhanced its IT infrastructure with new desktop computers for its employees and deployed a wide area network to enhance electronic communication among FBI offices and with other law enforcement organizations. However, despite additional funding the FBI had received to accelerate Trilogy, these first two phases were not completed any faster than originally planned.

In early 2004, after nearly 3 years of development, the FBI engaged several external organizations and contractors to evaluate the VCF, the third prong of the Trilogy project. The National Research Council, in its May 2004 report, concluded that the VCF project was not on a path to success because of: (1) inadequate contingency planning for the transition from the existing case management system to a new one, (2) the absence of a completed enterprise architecture, (3) inadequate time allowed for testing, (4) weaknesses in contract management, and (5) an inadequate IT human resources base.5

In light of these conclusions, the FBI began to consider alternative approaches to developing the VCF, including terminating the project or developing a completely new case management system. In late 2004, the FBI commissioned Aerospace Corporation to perform a trade study evaluating the functionality of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and government off-the-shelf (GOTS) technology to meet the FBI's case management needs. Aerospace followed this study with an Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) report on the VCF, issued in January 2005, which recommended that the FBI pursue a COTS-based, service-oriented architecture.6 The IV&V report concluded that a lack of effective engineering discipline led to inadequate specification, design, and development of the VCF.

In late 2004, the FBI modified its approach to developing the VCF by dividing the project into Initial Operational Capability (IOC) and Full Operational Capability segments. The IOC segment assessed the VCF project and involved a pilot test of the most advanced version of VCF in an FBI field office. The Project Management Executive for the FBI's Office of Information Technology Program Management stated that the results of the pilot validated that ending the VCF project was the right decision.

The FBI issued a final report on the IOC at the end of April 2005.7 According to the report, the FBI terminated work on the VCF due to the lack of progress on its development. The FBI stated that it was concerned that the computer code being used to develop the VCF lacked a modular structure, thereby making enhancements and maintenance difficult. In addition, the FBI report said that the "marketplace" had changed significantly since the VCF development had begun, and appropriate COTS products, which were previously unavailable, were now available. In his March 2005 testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, the FBI Director said the FBI would apply lessons learned from the VCF to develop and deploy Sentinel.


Similar to what the FBI had envisioned for the final version of the VCF, Sentinel is intended to not only provide a new electronic case management system, transitioning the FBI files from paper-based to electronic records, but also to result in streamlined processes for agents to maintain investigative lead and case data.8 In essence, the FBI expects Sentinel to be an integrated system supporting the processing, storage, and management of information to allow the FBI to more effectively perform its investigative and intelligence operations.

According to the FBI, the use of Sentinel in the future will depend on the system's ability to be easily adapted to evolving investigative and intelligence business requirements over time. Therefore, the FBI intends to develop Sentinel using a flexible software architecture that allows future changes to software components as needed. According to the FBI, a key element of the Sentinel architecture contributing to achieving this flexibility will be the use of COTS and GOTS applications software. The FBI intends to integrate the off-the-shelf products with an Oracle database, thereby separating the applications code from the underlying data being managed in order to simplify any future upgrades.

FBI agents are required to document investigative activity and information obtained during an investigation. The case file is the central system for holding these records and managing investigative resources. As a result, the case file includes documentation from the inception of a case to its conclusion. FBI agents and analysts create paper files in performing their work, making the process of adding a document to a case file a highly paper-intensive, manual process. Files for major cases can contain over 100,000 documents, leads, and evidence items.

Currently, the documentation within case files is electronically managed through the ACS system. The ACS system maintains electronic copies of most documents in the case file, providing references to those documents that exist in hardcopy only. Upon approval of a paper document, an electronic copy of the completed document is uploaded to the electronic case file of the ACS system. However, the ACS is a severely outdated system that is cumbersome to use effectively and does not facilitate the searching and sharing of information. For example, a former FBI project management executive testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2002 that "there's no mouse, there's no icon, there's no year 2000 look to it, it's all very keyboard intensive." The limited capabilities of the ACS and its lack of user-friendliness mean that agents and analysts cannot easily acquire and link information across the FBI.

In contrast, the FBI expects Sentinel to greatly enhance the usability of case files for agents and analysts, both in terms of adding information to case files as well as searching for case information. FBI supervisors, reviewers, and others involved in the approval process also will be able to review, comment, and approve the insertion of documents into appropriate FBI electronic case files through Sentinel.

In addition to enhancing the investigative capabilities within the FBI, Sentinel is intended to serve as the pilot project in the development of the Federal Investigative Case Management System (FICMS) framework as part of the e-government case management line of business. The FBI was named the lead agency for the FICMS initiative, which, according to a June 2005 memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the FBI, DOJ, and DHS Chief Information Officers (CIO), is intended to produce an architectural framework designed to: (1) bring federal law enforcement and investigative resources into a common electronic environment that promotes collaboration and optimum deployment of federal resources; and (2) create investigative case management solutions that provide state-of-the-art capabilities to collect, share, and analyze information from internal and external sources and initiate appropriate enforcement responses. According to a Senior Policy Advisor to the Department's CIO, other federal agencies can use Sentinel's core solution because of its standard set of case management tools and adaptability. Additionally, according to the FBI CIO, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has begun to encourage other agencies to become involved with the development of Sentinel and its interfaces in order to ensure future information sharing capability among all agencies.

Sentinel's Phased Approach

The FBI expects to develop the Sentinel project in 4 overlapping phases, each with a 12- to 18-month timeframe. For example, Phase II is anticipated to begin approximately 3 months after the start of Phase I. Each phase, when deployed, will result in a stand-alone set of capabilities that can be added to by subsequent phases to complete the Sentinel project. The following chart shows the phases and general timeframes for Sentinel, according to the FBI.

Notional SENTINEL Schedule
with Capability Deliverables

[Not Available Electronically]

 Source: FBI

Phase I will introduce the Sentinel portal, which will provide access to data from the existing ACS system and eventually, through incremental changes, support access to a newly created investigative case management system. Phase I will also provide a case management "workbox" that will present a summary of all cases the user is involved with, rather than requiring the user to perform a series of queries to find the cases as is currently necessary with the ACS. Additionally, the FBI will acquire software to identify persons, places, or things within the case files for automated indexing to allow the files to be searchable by these categories. The FBI will also select the core infrastructure components of the system in Phase I.

Phase II will provide case document management and a records management repository. The second phase will begin the transition to paperless case records and the implementation of electronic records management. A workflow tool will support the flow of electronic case documents through the review and approval cycles. A new security framework will be implemented to support access controls and electronic signatures.

Phase III will replace the Universal Index (UNI), which is used to determine if a piece of information about a person, place, or thing exists within the FBI's current case management system. The UNI is a database of persons, places, and things that have relevance to a case. While the current UNI supports only a limited number of attributes, Phase III will expand the number of attributes within the case management system. Improving the attributes associated with the entities will allow more precise and comprehensive searching and increase the ability to "connect the dots" while performing casework.

Phase IV will implement Sentinel's new case management and reporting capabilities, and will consolidate the various case management components into one overall system. At the end of this phase, the legacy systems will be shut down and the remaining cases in the legacy electronic case file will be migrated to the new case management system. In this phase, as in all the others, changes to the Sentinel portal will be required to accommodate the new features being introduced.

Prior Reports

Over the past 3 years, several oversight entities have issued reports examining the FBI's attempts to update its case management system through the VCF. These reports the OIG, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the House of Representatives' Surveys and Investigations Staff, the FBI, and other entities made a variety of recommendations focusing on the FBI's management of the VCF project and the continuing need to replace the outdated ACS system. A discussion of key points from these reports follows. (A more comprehensive description of the reports appears in Appendix 3.)

In February 2005, the OIG reported on the critical need to replace the ACS, finding that without an effective case management system the FBI remained significantly hampered due to the poor functionality and lack of information-sharing capabilities of its current IT systems.9 The report concluded that the difficulties the FBI experienced in replacing the ACS were attributable to: (1) poorly defined and slowly evolving design requirements, (2) contracting weaknesses, (3) IT investment management weaknesses, (4) lack of an Enterprise Architecture, (5) lack of management continuity and oversight, (6) unrealistic scheduling of tasks, (7) lack of adequate project integration, and (8) inadequate resolution of issues raised in reports on Trilogy.

In April 2005, the House Appropriation Committee's Surveys and Investigations staff similarly concluded in its report that:10

  • VCF development suffered due to a lack of program management expertise, disciplined systems engineering practices, and contract management. The project also was harmed by a high turnover of CIOs and program managers.

  • VCF development was negatively affected by the FBI's lack of an empowered and centralized CIO office and sound business processes by which IT projects are managed.

  • The FBI's decision to terminate VCF was related to deficiencies in the VCF product delivered, failure of a pilot project to meet user needs, and the new direction the FBI planned to take for its case management system.

  • The FBI's IT program management business structure and processes at the time of the report were, for the most part, in place, although some of these processes needed to mature.

In September 2004, the GAO reported that although improvements were under way and more were planned, the FBI did not have an integrated plan for modernizing its IT system.11 The GAO reported that each of the FBI's divisions and other organizational units that manage IT projects performed integrated planning for its respective IT projects. However, the plans did not provide a common, authoritative, and integrated view of how IT investments will help optimize mission performance, and they did not consistently contain the elements expected to be found in effective systems modernization plans. The GAO recommended that the FBI limit its near-term investments in IT systems until it developed an integrated systems and modernization plan and effective policies and procedures for systems acquisition and investment management. Additionally, the GAO recommended that the FBI's CIO be provided with the responsibility and authority to effectively manage IT FBI-wide.

We now turn to our findings from the OIG's first audit of the FBI's Sentinel program, which as noted above focused on the FBI's pre-acquisition planning for Sentinel.

  1. The National Research Council of the National Academies. A Review of the FBI's Trilogy Information Technology Program, May 2004.

  2. A service-oriented architecture is a collection of services that communicate with each other. The communication can involve a simple data exchange or two or more services coordinating on an activity.

  3. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Federal Bureau of Investigation: Virtual Case File Initial Operational Capability Final Report, version 1.0, April 29, 2005.

  4. A lead is a request from any FBI field office or headquarters for assistance in the investigation of a case.

  5. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Management of the Trilogy Information Technology Management Project, Audit Report Number 05-07, February 2005

  6. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, House Surveys and Investigations. A Report to the Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives, April 2005.

  7. U.S. Government Accountability Office. Information Technology: Foundational Steps Being Taken to Made Needed FBI Systems Modernization Management Improvements, Report Number GAO 04-842, September 2004.

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