FBI at last ready to go live with Sentinel case management system

Agile development helps speed up process, bureau's director says

The FBI’s long, troubled road toward a case file management system could be nearing the end. FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress this week that Sentinel is scheduled to be fully live by September.

The Sentinel project, launched in 2005 after the bureau had given up on its Virtual Case File system, has had its share of troubles during development. But in a statement before the House Judiciary Committee, Mueller said the case file management system’s next major functional rollout will be in April. The first two phases of the program are complete with thousands of users, including “agents, analysts and supervisors,” he said.

Using Agile software development processes, the team is working in two-week blocks to finish the project, Mueller said.

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“Every two weeks, new capabilities are demonstrated to the FBI’s senior executives, with formal monthly updates to the Department of Justice,” Mueller said. “These smaller development teams provide more flexibility in prioritizing our requirements, incorporating user feedback more quickly, and meeting our goals, step by step.”

Currently the agency is facing difficulties with collecting, managing and storing information due to an ever-widening gap between its current technical capabilities and its needs in that area, Mueller said.

“The FBI and other government agencies are facing a potentially widening gap between our legal authority to intercept electronic communications pursuant to a court order and our practical ability to actually intercept those communications,” he said. And it is “increasingly unable to collect valuable evidence in cases ranging from child exploitation and pornography to organized crime and drug trafficking to terrorism and espionage — evidence that a court has authorized us to collect. We need to ensure that our capability to execute lawful court orders to intercept communications does not diminish as the volume and complexity of communications technologies expand

Whether these deadlines will be met is uncertain, given the project’s track record. In January, an independent investigation commissioned by the FBI found that the agency had failed to correctly implement agile software development practices, which Mueller reported the agency is using to implement the project.

In August 2010, the White House listed the Sentinel project as a high-priority technology project at risk for failure, giving it a 2.5 rating out of 10.

In June 2010, Federal Computer Week reported that the FBI was working on bringing the project in-house for completion of its final two phases. Lockheed Martin was awarded the Sentinel project in 2006 but was issued a stop-work order on it in 2009.

Federal News Radio reported that FBI assistant executive director and CIO Chad Fulgham said he expects Sentinel to meet initial operating capability by this summer.

"Initial operating capability means our agents and analysts will be able to do cases from the beginning to the end," he told Federal News Radio. "The difference between initial operating capability and final operating capabilities are all the bells and whistles, nice-to-haves that you don't need to do cases, but obviously we want to provide out to the customer base. We plan on being done by the end of the year. And based on changing from the traditional waterfall methodology over to agile we actually are going to be coming in at the approved congressional budget."

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.


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