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IT Is Homeland’s Weakest Link

IT Is Homeland’s Weakest Link

Suggesting yet again how often IT is the weakest link in enacting government policy, the Democrats on the US Homeland Security Committee have issued a report blasting the administration for not doing enough on IT for Homeland Security Needs.

The report, “America at Risk: Closing the Security Gap” issued to coincide with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) one year anniversary, notes effective use of information technology can improve the management and functions of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and strengthen counterterrorism programs and initiatives.

“Effectively managed, information technology can transform how we protect the homeland,” its authors note. But the Democrats charge a litany of mismanagement, claiming the Administration is not taking sufficient advantage of IT for homeland security needs, DHS IT management is not nearly as effective as it needs to be, and DHS has not done enough to make the innovative private sector a full partner in defending the homeland.

The report came as Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (R-CA) claimed America was “unequivocally” safer today from the threat of a terrorist attack then it was a year ago.

"Protecting the homeland is a broad mission because each and every citizen and each and every inch of this great nation are precious. In its first year, the Department of Homeland Security has made tremendous progress protecting our skies, borders, waterways, critical infrastructure, and in improving our intelligence capabilities.

Cox says different levels of government and law enforcement are now sharing more intelligence than ever before, and the Department is co-operating with 22 countries to screen two-thirds of all cargo bound for the US. The Department plans to screen 80 percent of incoming cargo screened by the end of this year, Cox said.

“We recognized that once suspicious cargo makes it into a US port, it's too late,” he says. Other measures include the requirement that all non-citizens offer biometric identification — usually a fingerprint — when entering the country, the screening by airports of 100 percent of checked luggage. The US government has made more than $US8 billion in grants to emergency responders for equipment and training, and will soon begin overhauling the way it disburses funding to states and counties to reduce red tape and provide needed funds sooner.

“I think without question that America is safer today than it was a year ago," he said. "We have made enormous progress and we've covered a lot of ground in just one year, but we still have miles to go.”

The Democrats disagree, conceding the US is safer today than before the September 11 attacks but saying dangerous security gaps remain. They say pathways to US by land, sea and air are insecure, the country’s critical infrastructures have few defences and communities are poorly prepared to respond to a terrorist attack.

They note one of the main reasons cited for creating DHS was to fully integrate and coordinate disparate agencies that share the mission of protecting the homeland. The creation of DHS brought together 22 agencies and more than 180,000 employees into an organization that inherited as many as 8000 IT applications. But it says the bipartisan Congressional Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 (Joint Inquiry) has found IT has not been “fully [or] effectively applied in support of US counterterrorism efforts.

Persistent problems include “a reluctance [by the government and the intelligence community] to develop and implement new technical capabilities aggressively,” a “reliance on outdated and insufficient technical systems,” and “the absence of a central counterterrorism database,” it says.

DHS CIO Cooper admits databases used for law enforcement, immigration, intelligence, public health surveillance, and emergency management have not been integrated in ways that allow DHS to comprehend diverse data or “connect the dots” to better prevent terrorist attacks and protect people and infrastructure from terrorism. It also finds technologies and cultures of agencies have led to ‘islands of technologies’ and barriers to information integration.

The committee recommends the Administration adopt as its goal “nothing less than ‘network-centric homeland security,’ akin to ‘network centric warfare’ which proved so successful in the Iraq War. In practical terms, it says, the CIO must transform DHS through the extensive use of up-to-date IT to more broadly and efficiently gather and disseminate information to field and headquarters personnel, allowing them to most effectively fulfil their homeland security mission.

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