Terrorism info sharing still a problem for states

A host of federal homeland security officials testified on Capitol Hill this week that the government’s IT-enabled reorganization, with the Department of Homeland Security as its centerpiece, has significantly improved terrorism information sharing since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But some state homeland security officials told a far different story in written testimony submitted during a July 24 hearing of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. While the federal government should be applauded for efforts to improve information flow, state officials said, a lot of critical data is still not finding its way to the nation’s first responders – state and local police, fire and medical officials.

Critical intelligence information produced by and fed into the various Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) around the country often doesn’t reach the officers responsible for patrolling cities, towns, highways, villages and neighborhoods, according to James Kallstrom, senior adviser for counterterrorism to New York Gov. George Pataki.

Having already deployed a 350-node counterterrorism network throughout the state, New York next month plans to activate a new counterterrorism center to serve as a central clearinghouse for federal, state and local information sharing. But the federal government must still give police officers on patrol the ability to conduct a comprehensive search of federal databases, including outstanding warrants and terrorist watch lists, Kallstrom told members of Congress.

Federal security policy obstacles, such as disparate security clearance policies, have often hampered the ability of state officials to gain access to databases. “Currently, a top-secret clearance issued by the Department of Defense may not be recognized or deemed comparable by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, thus halting the flow of vital and often timely intelligence,” wrote Kallstrom.

Kallstrom’s testimony coincides with the findings of the joint inquiry by the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence into the 9/11 attacks. The 900-page report was released yesterday (see story). It cited similar complaints by many chiefs of police around the country but also noted improvements, such as the investigation of Zacharias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker.

In that case, the Minneapolis JTTF was able to search an Immigration and Naturalization Service database to quickly determine Moussaoui’s illegal immigration status, which led to his arrest.

George Foresman, deputy assistant for emergency preparedness to Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, painted a much more disorganized picture of the federal government’s homeland security structure and information-sharing mechanisms. According to Foresman, there are no clear business rules in place governing how information should be shared, and the quality of the data is often questionable.

“I believe we have unintentionally added confusion because of the ambiguity of the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence function as it relates to other federal agencies as well as state, local and private sector stakeholders,” wrote Foresman. “There does not appear to be any overall federal vision and coherent plan across the entire federal government that articulates exactly what we are trying to accomplish in terms of information and intelligence fusion, analysis and sharing, especially related to the involvement of state and local government.”

And while Virginia is also setting up a central data fusion center to handle information sharing with federal and local authorities, Foresman said that effort is being hampered by lack of clarity in the federal government’s policy. Only after those issues are resolved should IT systems be deployed, wrote Foresman. As the situation stands now, he said, state officials can sometimes find themselves drowning in too much data that isn’t reliable.

“I would offer that the almost reactive nature of sharing information may be leading to a well-intentioned push by federal agencies that floods state and local officials with oftentimes conflicting data, or so much volume, that reasonable analysis is impossible,” Foresman wrote.

Foresman also echoed Kallstrom’s concerns about security clearances and access to data.

“There has been only minimal progress in obtaining security clearances for state and local officials,” wrote Foresman. “We seem compelled to operate in an environment that seeks to empower restrictions to effectively sharing critical intelligence and information rather than promoting best practice solutions that get needed information and intelligence to those who must act to save lives.”

Despite statements by senior administration officials that the nation’s state and local first responders are the front-line troops in the war on terrorism, that ideal has “not been embraced by the rank-and-file staff in federal agencies,” according to Foresman. And although the Department of Homeland Security may be a new organization dealing with the typical growing pains of a start-up, Foresman said he gets the impression that “cooperation of other federal agencies is superficial.”