'Flexing of muscles'

Turf wars, other hurdles sap DHS info-sharing networks

The Homeland Security Department earlier this year experienced a significant setback to its information-sharing mission in the breakup of its partnership with a major law enforcement intelligence network.

Not only do the policy issues underlying that split remain unresolved, but data sharing between DHS and two other police-run networks also has stalled, although for different reasons.

The problems suggest that information-sharing at DHS is not going as smoothly as anticipated, although it's hard to say whether or not the hurdles are temporary.

"Every dog wants his own database," said Jeffrey Pierce, deputy director, Rocky Mountain Information Network, a regional crime information-sharing system run by police departments. "Some of this is the flexing of muscles."

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress created DHS in part to share intelligence about possible terrorist activity -- so-called "connecting the dots" between state, local and federal agencies -- to help prevent future attacks. The idea is that many bits of disparate information must be woven together to catch terrorists.

From its operation center, DHS runs the Homeland Security Information Network as the chief platform for sharing data. The network produces daily reports on suspected terrorist activity and enables online interactions between participants.


Originally known as the Joint Regional Information Exchange System, HSIN was created in 2002 by police intelligence units of several major cities, including Los Angeles and New York, together with the Defense Department. It was turned over to DHS in 2003 and has been renamed and expanded to multiple channels.

In March 2005, JRIES withdrew from DHS' network because of multiple concerns, including disagreements with department officials over who should have access to the police agencies' most sensitive criminal information, and anger over apparent leaks from the network to the Internet. JRIES now is moving toward once again, operating its own network.

No quick resolution is in sight. "Nothing much has changed since March," said Ed Manavian, chairman of JRIES and chief of criminal intelligence in the California Justice Department.

DHS spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich confirmed that the department was unable to reach an agreement with JRIES about the group's official role in HSIN.

Two other national law enforcement networks also are running into hurdles in integrating their databases with DHS' network.

A longstanding state-operated network, the International Justice and Public Safety Information-Sharing Network (NLETS), in Phoenix provides extensive information access to DHS and other federal departments. It lets federal immigration agents, border control agents and other law enforcement officials each year to do millions of database checks for state motor vehicle, criminal and other records.

But NLETS does not receive much information in return, said Steve Correll, NLETS executive director.

"It's a one-way street," he said. "We'd like to do more information-sharing with DHS, but so far nothing has come to fruition."

Another group of online police networks, the Regional Information Sharing Systems program, in which six regional centers participate, distributing criminal information to each other, is plugged into HSIN but does not often use it because of technical limitations.

"HSIN hasn't really developed the ability to hook up with RISS. It's still in the talking stages," said Jerry Lynch, executive director of RISS.

A technical issue that needs to be worked out is how to ensure that police agents in the field enter information only once and in a single database, rather than in multiple databases, to avoid competition between systems. "We're all in favor of HSIN as long as it doesn't compete with us," Lynch said.

"At this point, what RISS is getting out of DHS still isn't that useable," said Pierce, whose Rocky Mountain regional network is part of RISS. The reverse also may be true, Pierce added. "We have information available, but it does not seem like it is actually used" by DHS, he said. DHS focuses exclusively on terrorism, but RISS members share information on criminals, gangs and drug dealers who may or may not have links to terrorist groups, he said.

DHS views the problems with RISS and HSIN as mostly technical in nature. It is working to repair the interoperability shortcomings in 2006, DHS' Petrovich said. She praised DHS' information-sharing overall.

"I'd characterize HSIN as an expanding system that is continuing to grow," Petrovich said. "The reality is that we continue to share more information, not less information."

That HSIN has hit roadblocks to information-sharing with the JRIES, RISS and NLETS is not surprising, participants said. HSIN's difficulties in information-sharing reflect such issues as disagreements over policy, different points of view reflected by different professional cultures, poorly defined reasons and procedures for sharing, turf battles, legal concerns, technical glitches and sometimes a combination of several of those factors, the members said.

"The dynamics of sharing sensitive intelligence information are new, and there is bound to be resistance," said Bob Morehouse, executive director of the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit, a police association for information sharing. Many of the unit's 240 members participate in HSIN, but the group as a whole does not, Morehouse said.

There is discussion in the field as to whether or not supervision of HSIN's intelligence functions ought to be supervised separate from the network's other purposes, which are mostly to support for crisis management and situational awareness. The argument in favor of the separation holds that the action would create an environment that is more robust and more likely to gather useable intelligence.

"Someone in intelligence should be working the intelligence section of the Homeland Security Operation Center," JRIES' Manavian said. "These are two separate missions: situational awareness vs. intelligence."

DHS Intelligence Chief Charles Allen is reviewing all intelligence functions as part of the implementation of the department's second-stage review, DHS spokeswoman Petrovich said. But there are no plans to change the management of the operations center and HSIN, she said. Intelligence obtained through HSIN is shared with DHS' intelligence units, she added.

For the future, JRIES may thrive, grow stronger on its own and eventually hook into HSIN on its own terms, some information-sharing participants have said. Others say that, like it or not, HSIN is the biggest player around and not joining means risking being marginalized.

For now, HSIN's supporters and detractors in the field remain squared off, with some complaining that it does not take into account local needs, while others with equal vehemence maintain that a strong federal network is necessary to get everyone on the same page. *

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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