On Point

Homeland Security: Disseminating the Information, No Easy Task

by Austin Bay
Aug 1, 2002

The Dept of Homeland Security had better hire geniuses to work the switchboards.

Over 180 federal agencies play a role in homeland security. From the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Transportation, lines of authority, responsibility and communication blend, blur and sometimes break.

The clash and cooperation of cops (FBI) and spies (CIA) is only one of many jurisdictional battles Homeland Security must manage. Cops and cops also grate along jurisdictional lines -- the FBI with the Secret Service, for example.

Collecting, analyzing and sharing intelligence information is hard enough within the FBI, but disseminating it to the appropriate authority or agency, in a timely fashion, can be like rolling a marble through a maze. Creating the Department of Homeland Security is an attempt to get the marble out of the maze and on a comparatively straight track. The "switchboard" directing the marble is critical.

Federal reorganization to minimize bureaucratic hierarchy, layers and other institutional impediments will improve interagency domestic security cooperation. Legitimate jurisdictional issues and blurred bureaucratic boundaries, however, aren't unique to the federal government.

Commissioner Bob Hightower directs Georgia's Department of Public Safety (DPS). "In Georgia, we have 159 counties, all with sheriffs departments, and over 500 other local law-enforcement agencies," Hightower said. "(At Georgia DPS), we're dealing with all of them to improve homeland security. It's a work in progress."

Georgia's work in progress includes the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center, located one floor above the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force's Atlanta office.

"Our ultimate goal is to data link every police station in the state," Hightower added. "The locals won't get everything (we have), but they'll get everything they need to know about their area. ... It's different than law-enforcement intel in past, where a lot of that info was squirreled away. This data will be shared. There hasn't been a need for this kind of data-exchange system before. If you go back a few years, there were no software companies in this country that designed software for 911 (emergency) centers. Early on, there was no big market. That market expanded as 911 centers across the country popped up. You ought to look at some of the software today. This is a similar situation, I think (with homeland security data sharing). I don't only think it's possible we'll succeed, I think it's probable."

Other states are tackling the same problem. Texas Gov. Rick Perry told me: "After 9-11, we discovered we didn't have the open lines of (emergency and intelligence) communication we have to have, but it's now substantially less of a problem. The (Texas) Department of Public Safety, Texas' Department of Transportation have communications networks that are more coordinated today than six months ago. But information flow isn't just government bringing it down. It has to go up, too. Private citizens see something out of the ordinary, they must contact the appropriate government official and flow it up (for assessment and action)."

Perry agreed that knowing what needs to be done and doing it in the aftermath of a terror attack are very different, but he disputed critics who say state and federal agencies are clueless: "Texas, other states, have experience with (responding to) natural disasters, hurricanes, floods, as a model for responding to an a terror attack." Disaster response requires multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional cooperation and information sharing, as well as the cooperation of citizens. "We've done it," Perry argued.

Intelligence and timely use of that intelligence, however, remain the critical elements. This makes the Department of Homeland Security's "intelligence fusion cell" and its "fusion switchboard" (means of acquiring data and disseminating the intel) the department's Job One.

Complex? The implementation and integration tasks are immense. Getting agency leaders to agree to cooperate will be easier than getting their agencies to use the same computer programs.

Effective homeland security isn't simply smart spies and cops. It requires switchboard operators -- and very able computer jockeys -- who know how to connect complex and time-critical conference calls.

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