DHS Ops Center creates a hub of opportunities

But high-profile and challenging HSOC contracts may hold risks

By federal standards, a $38 million price tag for a computer networking project is relatively small. But the Homeland Security Department's plan to expand information networks at its operations center next year could bring a substantial payoff to contractors down the road.

The Homeland Security Operations Center is both a command post and information-sharing center. Its IT enhancement is likely to extend its reach outward to state and local agencies, and also to strengthen its links within the department.

"It's really the nerve center of the Homeland Security Department," said Bruce Walker, director of homeland security for Northrop Grumman Corp. "We're actively looking at it."

The center's prospects are equally tantalizing for contractors. Many view the project as a springboard to even more broad-ranging IT network and database integration at DHS.

"The numbers will have to get bigger in the out years," said Phil Carrai, president of Ai Metrix Inc., a network management software company in Reston, Va. "The operations center is a touchpoint project -- one point that touches many others. ... It's one of the more important projects at the department."

BIG JOB, BIG PLANS

The operations center, located at the agency's Nebraska Avenue headquarters in Washington, is intended to fulfill a central information-sharing mission for the department and the nation's law enforcement and homeland security agencies. Around the clock, the center's 30 federal employees monitor law enforcement reports of terrorism-related incidents nationwide. During a crisis, the center's networks provide situational awareness to federal, state and local officials.

When a stray airplane flew into restricted airspace over Washington May 11, leading to an emergency evacuation of the U.S. Capitol and White House, federal authorities at the operations center actively monitored the situation.

"The HSOC shared information and provided general guidance, but the Capitol Police were the lead on giving orders," said DHS spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich.

Although no request for proposals for the center's IT expansion has been released, contractors expect that most of the money for 2006 will go for completing the networks in the center, including the Homeland Security Information Network, which connects federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, and adding more nodes at state, local and federal agencies.

The department also is creating a vast, new Homeland Security Operations Center Database that will be the "primary national-level hub for operational communications and information pertaining to domestic incident management," according to a Federal Register notice filed April 18.

The new database will include domestic and foreign intelligence data, and will require an exemption from the Privacy Act of 1974, the notice said. More than 40 advocacy groups are protesting the waiver being sought for the database as being too broad and damaging to privacy rights.

The center's goals may include integrating more of the networks in the department, potentially including the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, immigration, customs and airport security, although it's not clear how much of the integration will occur in 2006 and how much in later years.

Additional networks operating outside the department -- such as those for critical infrastructure site surveillance, industry-specific monitoring, cybersecurity incidents, infectious disease reporting and health syndrome surveillance --could be linked to the operations center as well.

"This is an enterprise opportunity, and that makes it more challenging," said LaMont Wells, senior vice president of corporate development for American Systems Corp., an IT services and systems company in Chantilly, Va. "It's ideal from an IT standpoint, because you're getting in at the enterprise level."

ROAD AHEAD NOT CLEAR

But there are some uncertainties that may make IT contractors hesitate. The center's evolving mission is marked by secrecy, and with the recent appointment of the new Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, and his new, broad mandate to fuse intelligence functions governmentwide, it's possible the homeland security operations center's role as an intelligence fusion center may not be as grand and far-reaching as some envision.

The center's sparkle also has been dimmed by controversy. Earlier this year, the center created a furor when some of its daily intelligence reports were posted accidentally on the Internet. Last month, center personnel did not quickly inform District of Columbia authorities about the errant airplane approaching the White House, drawing criticism from local officials.

The new database being created for the center is drawing a flood of privacy complaints. The department's plan "leaves individuals without the ability to correct inaccurate information and without protection against possible abuse of the database," according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of the groups objecting to the proposed Privacy Act exemption for the new database.

Nonetheless, the operations center's IT integration contract for 2006 is likely to go forward, regardless of how the exemption for the new database is resolved. It will be sought after because of its high profile and central position in the department. Its expansion may be one of the most prestigious IT assignments at Homeland Security next year despite its relatively small size.

"Everyone is looking for high-visibility projects," Carrai said. "A lot of subcontractors are keeping their eyes on this."

The operations center, which opened in July 2004, operates in a second-story conference room at the department's headquarters complex in a leafy neighborhood four miles north of the White House. Run by the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection (IAIP) Directorate, it houses about 30 personnel to analyze incoming data from numerous networks and to provide live interaction during a crisis.

Directed by retired Marine Corps Gen. Matthew Broderick, it produces daily reports on terrorism-related investigations and events for the White House and other policy-makers. In past years, news reporters were allowed to visit and observe the center's operations, but that is no longer the case. Broderick declined several requests for an interview.

ANXIOUS FOR INFO

Contractors are eagerly awaiting details of the operation center's IT expansion, which zooms from a zero budget in fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2005 to $38 million in fiscal 2006. The money will pay for "distributed systems of centers, networks, processing and personnel," according to the Office of Management and Budget.

Related to this is a $22 million project to grow the Homeland Security Information Network, a network that links the operations center with state and local homeland security officials, law enforcement and critical infrastructure facilities. The many participants share information with "real-time interactive connectivity," according to a department fact sheet.

One of the information network's contractors providing that connectivity is Groove Networks, which was recently purchased by Microsoft Corp. Groove officials declined to comment.

Overall, the operations center is a marquee project for the department that is likely to go forward and continue expanding, said James Carafano, senior policy fellow for national security and homeland security with the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington. It's one of a handful of new initiatives made possible by the creation of the department in 2002.

"The center is one of the few things that IAIP has done well, and has shown some real value-add," Carafano said.

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com.

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