'Drift into nothingness'

Information-sharing initiative slowed by questions of mission, complexity

The federal government's effort to establish the national anti-terrorism Information-Sharing Environment is being slowed by complexity, limited resources and possibly a lack of clear goals.

Vendors have been active in developing advanced information-sharing platforms, which potentially may meet the needs of an ISE, although events indicate otherwise.

For example, recent advice from the Markle Foundation, a New York non-profit organization that focuses on IT for health care and national security, and the government's call for white papers on setting up the program's architecture and electronic directory services capabilities, suggest that the massive information-sharing project is still in its early stages.

"The Information-Sharing Environment is overly ambitious," said John Jay Carafano, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "It is one of those vague mandates that will drift into nothingness."

"It needs sustained attention and resources, or it could become bogged down," said Mary DeRosa, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She is a participating expert in the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age. "The program manager has a huge job and not enough staff. ... It has a long way to go," she said.

Congress established the Information-Sharing Environment as part of the intelligence reform legislation (PL 108-458) last year. The initiative was placed in the office of the new Director of National Intelligence, run by John Negroponte. John Russack in April was named the environment's program manager.

Congress defines the environment as a combination of policies, procedures and IT linking federal, state and local resources and the private sector to facilitate anti-terrorism information sharing.

However, Russack told the Senate Judiciary Committee in July that "there are still a number of hurdles that exist that will require time and hard work to surmount."

Chief among those are conflicting policies about sharing among government agencies, lack of trust between organizations, lack of common principles for access to information, and the need to protect privacy, he said. Russack also said he had only three employees working for him to set up the environment.

In August, the General Services Administration issued a call for white papers on ISE, asking vendors to provide detailed ideas on how they would construct architectures and incorporate electronic directory services into the environment.

But many details on ISE, such as its budget and schedule, are not available for review. Much of the operation, presumably, will be classified.

In a Sept. 27 speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Negroponte said the Information-Sharing Environment is likely to be modeled, in part, on the National Counterterrorism Center. That comparison left some observers puzzled, as the counterterrorism center, to date, is doing mostly integration and analysis rather than information sharing. Negroponte and Russack did not respond to calls requesting comment.

The Markle Foundation's national security task force recommended Sept. 7 that the ISE focus on setting up common policies and procedures for information-sharing governmentwide.

"Sweeping change is needed to remove any pre-9/11 confusion about information sharing that, regrettably, still exists in some departments and agencies," task force co-chairs Zoe Baird and Jim Barksdale wrote to President Bush.

The greatest challenge will be getting cooperation from federal agencies, whose internal policies for protecting and releasing information may be in conflict with a governmentwide policy, said Gilman Louie, president of In-Q-Tel Inc., a non-profit venture capital fund supported by the Central Intelligence Agency. Louie is a member of the Markle Foundation's national security task force.

The question Louie asks is whether Negroponte or Russack have the authority to compel federal agencies to comply with a federal information-sharing policy.

"Without that authority, it becomes very difficult to solve this problem. If we need consensus, it may take too long," Louie said.

DeRosa said significant progress on the ISE could be made in less than a year.

"It is doable," DeRosa said. "They need to get started, get some things done, and they should not feel like they have to develop an entire product before anything can get done. I don't believe it has to take a year."

Carafano is less optimistic about the Markle Foundation's idea of setting governmentwide policies and procedures for the ISE. "That's a pie-in-the-sky idea," he said. "It's not a reasonable requirement."

Meanwhile, vendors are buzzing with activity on information-sharing initiatives:

  • A new Association for Information and Image Management working group will create standards for an interoperable enterprise content management system to allow data sharing among disparate systems; and a Web services architecture that agencies could use to manage content across vendors.

  • EMC Corp., Hopkinton, Mass., said Sept. 29 that it is working with Adobe Systems Inc. to develop a standards-based, interoperable content management infrastructure that will allow data sharing and support AIIM's emerging standard.

  • General Dynamics Corp.'s partnership with Jabber Inc. of Denver, announced Sept. 20, will facilitate information sharing and systems interoperability.

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

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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