Homeland tech projects scrutinized

Congress put strict limits on several major technology initiatives and sliced $20 million from the chief information office as part of the first Homeland Security Department appropriations bill, approved last week.

The legislation, which now goes to President Bush for his signature, earmarks $29.4 billion for homeland security in fiscal 2004. It includes money to protect the nation's borders, support state and local responders, upgrade transportation security and develop innovative antiterrorism technologies.

The bill includes support for many technology projects but sometimes with strings attached. Lawmakers expressed concerns about the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, the ambitious border program for tracking the entry and departure of all foreign visitors.

The bill would require DHS officials to report regularly on the program's progress and to account for how they are spending the $330 million for fiscal 2004. Last week, a General Accounting Office report called the project a risky endeavor.

The appropriations bill orders DHS to ensure that US-VISIT's technology, including digital scans of fingerprints and other physical features, is compatible with the FBI's fingerprint identification system. Congress also instructed the department to put all US-VISIT-related contracts out for bid rather than awarding sole-source deals.

Although the spending bill earmarked $319 million for the five-year customs modernization program, it required DHS to get congressional approval before spending money on the program, which would automate tracking imports and exports.

"These agencies haven't been able to move forward with their programs, so why should Congress appropriate dollars until they know what it's going to be spent on?" asked Ray Bjorklund, vice president of market intelligence and chief knowledge officer at Federal Sources Inc., a market research firm.

But Congress also demands more oversight, said Alan Balutis, president of Veridyne Inc., an information technology solutions company.

"It's a good sign in the sense that Congress is paying more attention to management and IT management issues," he said.

The fiscal 2004 budget emphasizes research and technology and provides money to fuel development of new antiterrorism technologies.

The budget includes $5.6 billion over 10 years to develop technologies to fight biological attacks. It includes $874 million for next year to fund the private development of antiterrorism technologies. The budget earmarks $10 million for a national alert system and $155 million for research and development into transportation security technology.

The budget provides $185 million for departmentwide technology investments and $21 million transferred from the Justice Department for the DHS enterprise architecture, which is expected to be released next month.

In one belt-tightening action, House and Senate negotiators cut more than $20 million from the $82 million requested by the administration for DHS' CIO operation, earmarking $60.5 million for fiscal 2004.

"Overall, we're happy with the bill," said DHS spokeswoman Rachael Sunbarger. "We're going to work with what we've got."

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