U.S. officials: Information sharing key to security

The U.S. government is getting better at sharing information between various agencies tasked with protecting the nation against terrorism, but IT can help drive more improvements, two top-ranking antiterrorism officials said Monday.

Two federal officials told a crowd of about 450 people — mostly federal, state and local workers who deal with domestic security issues — that the U.S. government has improved its information-sharing capabilities since the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. “We’re not there yet; we’re getting there,” said Donna Bucella, director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Terrorist Screening Center. “I want to prove the naysayers wrong. I want to prove government can work together.”

Bucella and Daniel Ostergaard, executive director of the Homeland Security Advisory Council in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), both touched on IT during their speeches at the fourth annual Government Symposium on Information Sharing and Homeland Security in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Better sharing of information among government agencies is key to preventing further terrorist attacks on the U.S., Ostergaard said. “Either stop it before it happens, or you’re cleaning it up afterwards,” he added. “I’m focused on stopping it before it happens.”

The stakes are high, Ostergaard added. “It’s only a matter of time before the bad guys get the code to a nuke (nuclear bomb),” he said. “A weapon of mass destruction going off in downtown New Orleans, or New York, or Washington, D.C., is not an option.”

Ostergaard used Internet-based control systems for water treatment plants as an example of IT systems that can be used to better protect the so-called critical infrastructure systems in the U.S. Workers in many water treatment plants can check the status of on/off valves with Web-based programs, and more pieces of the critical infrastructure need systems that can pinpoint problems and quickly find ways to work around them, he said.

The U.S. government has defined 17 national systems — including the electrical grid, food system and water supply — as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, and Ostergaard advocated more use of automated systems to protect those systems.

“We need a system that’s self-aware, resilient, self-restorative, and protects the critical infrastructure,” he said. “If something does happen, it has to be self-restorative.”

In addition to some aging critical infrastructure, DHS faces a number of other challenges to the sharing of information, Ostergaard said. The U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies spent several decades trying to keep much information secret during the Cold War, during which there was one main adversary instead of potentially dozens of small terrorist cells, he said.

As government agencies try to move away from tightly guarding information, there’s also the potential of sharing too much information and flooding local police and other workers with too much data, he said. “It’s like wrapping your mouth around a fire hydrant and turning it on,” he said.

Bucella also noted some challenges. When asked about her center’s IT needs, she noted its budget is small — about US$29 million a year. “It costs money,” she said. “I didn’t realize, and I don’t think anybody realized, when we got into this, how much the IT development costs.”

The Terrorist Screening Center has the job of maintaining up-to-date terrorist watch lists and giving those lists to law enforcement agencies, border guards and transportation security agents. Since 2001, the center had to pull together 12 different government databases, many that listed common criminals as well as terrorism suspects, into a comprehensive terrorism watch list that can give police officers real-time data about a subject, such as someone pulled over in a traffic stop.

The center is looking at commercial, off-the-shelf software to meet many of its IT needs, and the center is working on developing software packages it can share with other agencies, Bucella said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all use the same system?” she said. “That’s really it — connectivity.”

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