Info-sharing is work in progress

Negroponte's plan to link federal agencies could run into millions

Three years from now, scores of federal agencies, not only those focused on homeland security and justice, but also medical, agricultural, educational and others, will be connected in the government's information-sharing environment, where they will seamlessly exchange terrorism-related information.

An even broader computer network will link the National Counterterrorism Center with dozens of state and local agency nodes, primarily intelligence fusion centers.

Those are the ambitious goals of a plan submitted in mid-November to Congress by Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and former ambassador Thomas McNamara, program manager for the information-sharing environment.

It's a vision that will cost federal agencies hundreds of millions of dollars, McNamara told Washington Technology. But even such a staggering price tag is a low estimate, because it assumes leveraging government agency networks, McNamara said. Another several hundred million federal dollars are to be invested in the state and local intelligence fusion centers, he said.

"What we are doing is building walkways, skyways and connectivity between structures," McNamara said. "In budget terms, the new budget is what it costs to create those linkages."

The goal is to weave information-sharing tools into the fabric of federal enterprise architecture so it encompasses all federal agencies, he said.

"This certainly is a fresh start and an attempt at a fairly comprehensive approach to information-sharing governmentwide," McNamara said. "It is ambitious, but not overly ambitious. It is realistically ambitious."

Whether it is achievable, however, remains a question. Consider the Homeland Security Department's troubled record in this arena. When Congress in 2003 created the department, its mandate included establishing information-sharing capabilities, also known as "connecting the dots," and linking disparate pieces of information against terrorism.

But progress has been slow. In a November report, DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner said only a small fraction of the agency's members are using its chief information-sharing tool, the Homeland Security Information Network.

The new environment faces similar risks. But unlike DHS' approach, its reach will stretch across numerous federal departments, McNamara said.

The success or failure of the information-sharing environment "will not depend on one system or one database," he said. Its task, and McNamara's job, he said "is to correct the defects in information-sharing: to create a technology, bureaucratic capability, methodology, business practices and policies to encourage it, between and among the communities."

Incremental approach

So far, feedback has been encouraging.
"I was concerned about the vague charter of the information-sharing environment, but now I'm much more optimistic," said James Carafano, senior research fellow for homeland security and national security with the Heritage Foundation.

"This will start with existing technologies and use an incremental approach ? Using the state fusion centers as a center of gravity is a very practical solution," he said.

But some basic rules about how information is to be shared, both from local agencies to the federal government, and from the federal government outward, have not yet been written.

Rules over handling and storage of criminal justice and classified and sensitive information must be coordinated and audits done to protect privacy, said John Rollins, specialist in terrorism and international crime for the Congressional Research Service.

"There is a big need for federal and state partnering on oversight and storage of the information," Rollins said.

The 186-page implementation plan for the environment has been in development since December 2005 as a collaboration among McNamara and officials from the FBI; the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State; and 10 other agencies on the Information Sharing Council.

The environment also will include state and local, foreign and private sector users. Congress created Negroponte's post, as well as the information-sharing environment, in the intelligence reform legislation of 2004.

Technical requirements and standards under development for the environment will be fully incorporated into federal enterprise architecture reviews and budgets by fiscal 2009, according to a schedule included in the plan. McNamara will convene and chair a new working group to select and issue information-sharing standards by Dec. 31, 2006.

As for budgets, although McNamara offered no definitive figure, he suggested a range in the hundreds of millions of dollars for the federal capabilities, most of which the federal agencies themselves would budget.

For funding state fusion centers, DHS has invested about $125 million a year to date ? $380 million in all ? and will continue to invest at that rate, McNamara said.

Fixing the pipes

The state fusion centers will include personnel from the federal intelligence community, subject matter experts, intelligence analysts and operators of local police departments, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an Oct. 16 speech to police chiefs.

The agency plans by the end of this fiscal year to deploy personnel in 20 fusion centers, and by the end of the next fiscal year in as many as 35 fusion centers.
Forty-two states, including Colorado, Illinois, Maryland and New York, already have fusion centers operating or on the drawing boards.

One decision yet to be made is whether DHS' homeland security information network will be a chief conduit for the information-sharing environment. Several networks coordinated through the Justice Department and others, including the Joint Regional Terrorism Information Exchange System, Law Enforcement Online system, National Law Enforcement Telecommunication System and Regional Information Sharing Systems, to name a few, also may be used for sharing through the environment.

"We will move the information along existing pipelines," McNamara said of the agency networks. "Some of these pipelines will have to be expanded and replaced by new ones."

Decisions also must be made as to what information is shared and how. Currently, a locally generated report of suspicious behavior, for example, a man of Middle Eastern appearance seen videotaping a major bridge, rail station or government building, may or may not be passed along, said John Cohen, a spokesman for McNamara.

"The intelligence products have yet to be defined," he said. "We need a well-defined reporting process."

Reflecting such uncertainties, the fiscal 2008 budget request most likely will be incremental, based on agencies' information-sharing budgets, and more detail will be available in 2009, McNamara said.

Progress is likely to be slow.

"I expect we'll see a gradual realignment of priorities and greater synergies for the 16 intelligence agencies through the director of national intelligence," said Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president of the Professional Services Council.

But there also will be pressure to deliver measurable results quickly in fighting terrorism, which can be difficult if people become complacent.

"Historically, if there is no crisis going on, you really have to have leadership to keep the employees engaged in [anti-terrorism] information-sharing," Rollins said.

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

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