Terror response needs new IT

The U.S. government could create a nationwide homeland security network for information sharing for as little as US$1.25 million, according to a former director of the Critical Infrastructure Protection program at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Paula Scalingi, a former Energy Department security expert who now heads her own consultancy in Tysons Corner, Va., has proposed to officials in the Office of Homeland Security that they sponsor 10 regional public/private “Partnerships for Homeland Security,” similar to what currently exists only in the Pacific Northwest. Each regional partnership could be established with $125,000 in federal funds and $25,000 in seed money from the private-sector owners and operators of critical-infrastructure systems, she said.

“What this would provide is interoperability continentwide,” said Scalingi, speaking last week at a conference sponsored by the Council of Security and Strategic Technology Organizations (COSTO) in Washington. “You can’t look at the state level, because infrastructures cross states . . . and interdependencies don’t stop at borders.”

The Pacific Northwest already has an evolving public/private partnership: the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER), which spans five U.S. states, plus three Canadian provinces and one terrritory – British Columbia, Alberta and Yukon. The group plans was scheduled to hash out its plans at a meeting last month in Seattle, where dozens of officials who took part in this year’s Blue Cascades interdependency exercise will form eight working groups to prioritize the detailed recommendations that emerged from the exercise.

While most attendees at the COSTO conference reserved comment on PNWER, all agreed that massive changes in IT and management policies are needed at the state and local levels. More than a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks highlighted significant infrastructure vulnerabilities that have the potential to cause massive problems for emergency response teams, terrorism response programs remain woefully inadequate and low tech, said experts.

“While many people think we know how to do this . . . we really don’t,” said John Powers, chairman of Corporate Communications Resources Inc. in Alexandria, Va., and former executive director of the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection. To this day, one of the major challenges remains finding a way to “bring a semblance of order out of the initial chaos” that results from a major terrorist attack, he said.

Powers said the nation desperately needs a “network of networks” that can give state and local authorities a “common tactical picture” on their desktops. But budget constraints have conspired with what Powers called “turf and testosterone” to prevent real change from happening.

“What 9/11 presented to the civilian infrastructure was the crossing of the line into chaos,” which is the kind of environment in which military leaders are trained to operate, said John McCarthy, head of the critical-infrastructure protection project at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. The immediate challenge is training local and private-sector leaders to think and act like military commanders.

“That’s a skill set that’s going to have to be developed in industry,” McCarthy said.