Bell tolls for the FBI's aged case file system

Sentinel's initial rollout signals taps for green screens

Some computer systems leave behind a puff of software vapor when they retire, and many exit along with a dumpster of broken plastic and metal. But few systems can be tagged with partial responsibility for enabling deadly espionage incidents.
The FBI's Automated Case Support system, formerly known as the Automated Case File System under the same acronym (ACS), is one such system.

The rollout earlier this month of the first phase of the bureau's new Sentinel investigative case management system cues the recessional for the obsolete and unlamented ACS.

FBI chief information officer Zal Azmi said in a recent telephone interview that the bureau plans to phase out the ACS system around 2009, as Sentinel progresses through its second, third and fourth development phases.

Sentinel's initial phase, which the bureau deployed to some 30,000 users last month, provided a user-friendly online interface to data that still resides in ACS.
The extreme difficulty of using ACS to enter or search for data deterred most FBI special agents from taking the time to learn its very slow and arcane functions.

ACS relied on mainframe hardware and presented its users with a green-screen environment. Many FBI agents delegated the drudgery of using ACS to clerical employees, while glacial paper information transfer methods remained central to the agency's information flows.

System misuse

But notorious spy Robert Hanssen became an ACS virtuoso and exploited the system's extensive flaws to protect and extend his career as a double agent for the Soviets and later the Russians while working for the FBI.

Hanssen was able to use ACS to keep tabs on counterintelligence agents who sought to expose him, without their knowledge.

Sentinel, by contrast, features multiple security improvements, including the ability to track the activity of any user and ensure that any changes or even inspections of data can be traced back to the people who carried them out.

Azmi described how part of the process of mustering out ACS will be extracting and scrubbing the data it holds. The bureau's vendors will use a data-cleansing process when extracting the ACS information, Azmi said. 'Whatever data sets [are taken from ACS] will be quarantined. We will cleanse the data. We will get only one shot at this, and we don't want to go wrong.'

Azmi said bureau officials were pleased with the investigative case management system's operational features. The first phase of the project cost the FBI about $59 million, which approximated its cost target, he added.

'We weren't exactly on time [with the first phase of Sentinel delivery],' Azmi said. 'We had some technical difficulties integrating the [commercial] products.' But those delays did not cripple the system's functions or cost, he said.

In March 2006, the bureau awarded the first phase of Sentinel as a contract that would be severable from subsequent phases, so the agency would not be effectively bound to its initially chosen vendor team, Azmi said. A vendor team led by Lockheed Martin carried out the systems integration.

The bureau's cautious approach to the Sentinel contract award, which was preceded by months of planning and business process re-engineering, reflected in part the FBI's headline-grabbing debacle with the system's predecessor, Virtual Case File (VCF), which failed at a cost of more than $100 million.

VCF was launched as one of three legs of the bureau's Trilogy project, which also included programs to build new networks for the FBI and put PCs on the desks of tens of thousands of users.

Sentinel is built around a core of commercial applications that includes 'mainly IBM products, such as IBM WebSphere, the Tivoli security manager [and an Oracle database management system],' Azmi said. Sentinel runs on Sun Solaris and Microsoft Windows platforms, he added.

Bureau information technology officials gave the system a shakedown cruise with the day-to-day work in the Richmond, Va., Baltimore and Washington field offices in addition to the Cyber Crime division headquarters before furnishing the system to other FBI users.

During an early phase of Sentinel's systems integration, senior FBI officials commissioned a vendor analysis of how difficult it would be to upgrade the system's architecture to the now-standard National Information Exchange Model (NIEM), Azmi said.

Built to share

NIEM affords service-oriented architecture features that facilitate information exchange among law enforcement systems, Azmi said. It is follow-on work to the Justice Department's Global Extensible Markup Language Model for tagging and hypertext of law enforcement data.

The analysts determined that the NIEM upgrade wouldn't cause significant problems, so bureau officials commissioned that modification to the initial requirements.
Azmi added that the bureau and its counterparts in the Justice Department have agreed that law enforcement grants to state and local agencies include a requirement that any IT projects also comply with NIEM requirements, in an additional bid to spur information sharing.

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