A Decade and $451M Later, FBI Computers Just Now Working Together

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- It's been over 10 years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and the FBI's computers are just now working properly.

After years of frustration and hundreds of millions of dollars lost on a system that didn't work, the FBI has finally deployed a new $451 million computer system called Sentinel.

The web-based interface allows agents to widely search all FBI case files and data as they work investigations and track down leads, effectively moving FBI agents and analysts away from paper-based files to a streamlined computer program.

Sentinel follows a previous attempt by the FBI to create an electronic case management system called Virtual Case File. That system was abandoned in 2005 after significant management and technical problems with government contractors caused $170 million to be spent on a system that didn't work.

In 2006, the FBI awarded the new Sentinel contract to Lockheed Martin to deploy the system by 2009, but when cost concerns and other issues arose, the FBI took over the final deployment and development of Sentinel.  When the Bureau took over the project in 2010, they increased the total cost of the system by $26 million to $451 million.

The system allows agents to conduct searches of related case information to "connect the dots."  During a brief demonstration for reporters Tuesday morning at FBI Headquarters, a special agent showed how entering basic information from a case of "John Doe" was cross referenced with other matching information.  The system also allows FBI agents to scan in critical documents and manage case evidence.

The search function allows agents and supervisors in the field to have automatic updates sent to them when agents in other field offices enter information that may relate to their investigation.

The FBI was sharply criticized after the 9/11 attacks for failing to piece together information about suspected terrorists obtaining flight training in the United States.  The FBI was first warned in July 2001 by FBI Agent Ken Williams, who was assigned to the Phoenix Field Office, that individuals associated with Osama bin Laden were undertaking a coordinated effort to obtain flight training in Arizona.

The memo he wrote recommending that the FBI have liaison with flights schools in their areas was not widely read or acted upon.  In August 2001, officials at FBI headquarters did not realize the significance of the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was seeking flight training in Minnesota and had financial connections to the 9/11 hijackers.

FBI Assistant Director Jeffrey Johnson, who oversees the FBI's Information Technology Engineering Division, said that between 18,000 to 21,000 users have been using the system daily since Sentinel was fully deployed on July 1, 2012.

"The deployment of Sentinel is an important step forward for FBI's information technology," FBI Director Robert Mueller said in a statement released Tuesday.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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