Democrats grill homeland CIO

Democrats criticized the Homeland Security Department and its chief information officer last week for failing to move more swiftly to consolidate terrorist watch lists and share information about potential terrorists with law enforcement agencies.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Government Reform Committee, criticized the Bush administration for its "pingpong approach" in addressing the problem. The lack of a centralized watch list allowed several of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists to enter the United States even though their names were on a CIA list.

Responsibility for the lists has been passed from the White House to the FBI, back to the White House and then to DHS, Waxman said. "This is not a recipe for success."

Watch lists are maintained by a number of agencies including the departments of State, Justice, Defense, Transportation and Treasury. They are designed to provide information about known or suspected terrorists. When an individual applies for a visa or enters the United States, for example, government officials check the name against the lists to determine if the person should be denied entry or apprehended while in the country.

A primary goal for DHS is to consolidate the lists so that every agency has access to all the names. Testifying before the panel at the tense hearing, Steve Cooper, DHS' chief information officer, said a coalition of intelligence officers are working under the guidance of the newly formed Terrorist Threat Integration Center to figure out how to merge the lists.

"They are at work to define the process to which your question can be answered," Cooper told Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), who asked him who was in charge of merging the lists. "Shortly, we will have answers," Cooper said.

"You're kidding me.... I'm just stunned," Tierney shot back. "To find out now we're almost two years [after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks] and this is still not done is just staggering. This is an abject failure of leadership."

Waxman condemned White House officials for disregarding the General Accounting Office's efforts to contact them during an investigation on the issue. GAO's report, released last month, concluded that the Bush administration has yet to fix the problem of agencies' maintaining and hoarding separate lists.

Last week, Cooper told Federal Computer Week that a consolidated watch list would be ready in the next few weeks, but he declined to elaborate.

Information sharing is a major focus for the department, Cooper told the lawmakers, and it is making slow, but steady progress toward merging the systems and cultures of the 22 components that are now part of DHS. Officials are working on a departmentwide enterprise architecture and expect a workable plan by September.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) also criticized DHS, focusing on officials' efforts to overcome resistance to sharing information. "I appreciate all your work in information technology, but there is a human fault," he said. "What are we doing to work for a change in that culture of secrecy and obsessive control of information in those agencies?"

Cooper said the department has begun to tackle the cultural barriers among the components by creating integrated teams to agree on a shared vision of DHS and tactics for sharing information. He said the teams are creating memoranda of agreement that outline specific requirements for information sharing, but the agreements do not include incentives for sharing or penalties for not sharing.

"We've had some good dialogue. We've actually been able to reach some agreements," Cooper said. "We are actually spelling out the mechanisms that will get us to the integration we are talking about."

Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) noted that DHS inherited the information problems, including the disparate watch lists, and that watch lists had already existed in many of the agencies. He also commended DHS officials' deliberate focus on developing an enterprise architecture, rather than spending money without a solid plan.

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Watch list to dos

In a report released last month, the General Accounting Office outlined several recommendations to promote the integration of a dozen terrorist watch lists:

* Define an architecture for the lists that addresses national security issues and privacy protections.

* Capitalize on state, local and private-sector information sources.

* Adopt standard policies for sharing watch lists and address legal and cultural barriers to sharing.

* Align strategies with agencies' enterprise architectures.

* Report to Congress by Sept. 30, and every six months thereafter, on the status of the efforts and any legislative action needed to accomplish them.

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