Obstacles, complacency threaten homeland security push

Improvements in IT interoperability and information-sharing at the federal level have reportedly foiled several recent terrorist plots. But policy barriers, turf wars and a growing sense of complacency in the private sector threaten to slow homeland security progress, officials said Monday.

Although the details remain classified, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said “a number of real threats” have been thwarted in recent weeks, thanks in large part to improvements in IT interoperability and information-sharing that have been made since the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in November.

But Weldon, senior congressional staff members and independent experts cautioned that there are still policy roadblocks, as well as cultural and perception problems, that could easily undo those successes. Weldon and others spoke yesterday at the Second Annual Government Symposium on Information Sharing & Homeland Security.

Chief among those challenges is the issue of money. According to Weldon, the House and Senate are now trying to reach agreement on restoring US$168 million in IT funding that was cut from the Defense Authorization Bill.

“This is not the time to do (homeland security) on the cheap,” said retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark. “I know there are turf wars. There are a number of reasons for walls between agencies. The way to stop the turf competition is with (financial) resources.”

But the problem goes deeper than authorizing spending for IT, said Weldon. Currently, 88 committees and subcommittees touch “a hodgepodge of congressional jurisdictions” that control some portion of homeland security funding, said Weldon.

Kim Kotlar, legislative director for Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who helped draft the legislation that created the DHS, said a priority for Congress this year will be to help the new agency set IT spending priorities for the $30 billion homeland security budget recently passed by the House of Representatives, “rather than spread money around indiscriminately.”

Tim Sample, former staff director at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said federal largesse and cultural stagnation must also be tackled before progress can be made on information-sharing.

“I spent eight years working with members of the committee, trying to get a system of collaborative analysis deployed throughout the intelligence community,” Sample said. “We considered success (to be) getting a system (deployed) within an agency. Technology is not the issue. Bureaucracy is the issue.”

But Ruth David, former director of science and technology at the CIA and now CEO of Arlington, Va.-based Analytical Services Inc., said that she is starting to see “signs of complacency” throughout both the government and the private sector and that the homeland security effort must move beyond information-sharing.

“We’re treating information-sharing like the Holy Grail,” said David. “This is about relationships, not about building an IT network and pushing out bits of data.”