Firm resolve but no easy resolution

Department of Homeland Security

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Two Bush Cabinet secretaries sat side by side last week at a House Judiciary Committee hearing and pressed lawmakers to extend the deadline for foreign governments to develop passports with electronic chips containing biometric information. Taking time to do it right will improve national security, they said.

At the same time, one floor up, a well-known state technology official was testifying before another House committee that a multitude of federal agencies were issuing so many separate alerts and warnings that states struggle to coordinate, keep track of and effectively respond to them.

Lawmakers and others are pressuring federal officials to address long-standing homeland security problems, from a lack of communications interoperability to mistaken admission of criminals into the country and inadequate federal agency plans to operate effectively after a catastrophic event.

Most federal officials would say the United States is much safer than it was in 2001. But the range of problems is so broad and deep, many admit the country is still vulnerable and it will take time to tackle such issues.

Issue 1: Keeping lights on in agencies

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, renewed interest in developing government continuity of operations plans (COOPs) for federal executive branch agencies and Congress. Yet, two and a half years later, a recent congressional investigation found that agencies still have ineffective plans that lack guidance, review and testing.

"If [the Sept. 11 attacks were] the wake-up call, then we haven't fully heeded the message when it comes to our planning," Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said during a hearing on the matter last week.

Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is leading the effort, have responded. Later this month, they will conduct a full-scale exercise called Forward Challenge, which they plan to make an annual event. At least 45 federal departments and agencies nationwide will participate.

Michael Brown, FEMA's undersecretary of emergency preparedness and response, said the exercise will not only test how easily federal employees can get from point A to point B, but also cybersecurity and communications interoperability between alternate relocation sites, accessibility of databases and vital records from those sites.

Issue 2: Keeping lights on in Congress

The House passed legislation April 22 requiring states to hold special elections within 45 days of the House speaker's certification of more than 100 vacancies resulting from a catastrophe. What's notable about this COOP, though, is what is missing.

The House bill does not include provisions for emergency communications to keep legislative branch operations running. Earlier in the day, members of the House Rules Committee rebuffed an e-Congress amendment offered by Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) that would focus on keeping members electronically connected to one another and their staffs to keep government going, even if the Capitol were damaged.

One issue in the debate of a virtual Congress is whether it's constitutional to hold session via the Internet or in any form that is not a physical assembly. Langevin's amendment specifically asked the Library of Congress to identify contentious procedural and constitutional issues.

And the idea is not likely to die quietly.

"We still have unmet needs and should consider how Congress would communicate and conduct business if members were unable to meet in one place due to a disruption in transportation or energy infrastructure, nuclear fallout and radiation, or national quarantines in response to biological warfare," Langevin told the committee.

Issue 3: Information overload

Federal officials haven't always shared information with their state and local counterparts. That was a major problem before Sept. 11 but isn't now.

Appearing before a subcommittee of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, George Newstrom, Virginia's technology secretary, said federal agencies need to be more focused and merge alerts and other information generated by Homeland Security Department officials and others.

The barrage of alerts "makes it difficult for state homeland security directors and [chief information officers] to understand the full spectrum of threats faced by the state without staying abreast of multiple channels and fusing the information internally," he said.

Robert Liscouski, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection within DHS' Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate, said department officials are aware of the problem and a formal process to coordinate alerts is under way, but for the foreseeable future, state officials will have to work out a system themselves.

Issue 4: Can you hear me now?

Another long-standing problem with no quick resolution in sight is the lack of communications interoperability among public safety agencies. A congressional investigation recently criticized the federal SafeCom initiative, which is attempting to address the national issue, for making little progress in its short two-and-a-half year existence.

Changing managers and inadequate interagency collaboration are two prime reasons. GAO officials said SafeCom's project team is creating a governance structure and providing grant guidance to public safety agencies but hasn't developed needed formal written agreements with major stakeholders or established a stable funding mechanism. Such weaknesses need to be addressed first, they said.

In an interview with Federal Computer Week, SafeCom's program manager, David Boyd, said the program is addressing these problems. Officials are assessing the state of interoperability, drafting a comprehensive statement of functional requirements and creating coordinated grant guidance policies, among other things.

"I believe very strongly that you can't make something like this work unless you start at the local level and build up," he said.

Issue 5: High-tech passports

Technology solutions envisioned by U.S. government leaders do not always play out well overseas.

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 set an Oct. 26 deadline requiring travelers from 27 visa-waiver nations, including the United Kingdom, Japan and Spain, to have biometric data authenticating their identities embedded in their passports. In this case, the internationally adopted standard is facial mapping.

But in the 17 months since the act was passed, officials from those countries say the technological issues are complex, prompting DHS Secretary Tom Ridge and State Department Secretary Colin Powell to request a two-year extension for the requirement.

If countries don't get an extension, foreign travelers from visa-waiver nations who do not have high-tech passports will have to get visas, which could significantly hamper tourism and other travels. The secretaries assured lawmakers last week that the federal government's entry/exit system will adequately protect the nation.

"It must be noted that the reason these countries cannot meet the Oct. 26 deadline is not a lack of will of commitment but rather challenging scientific and technical issues," Ridge said.

Some lawmakers seemed inclined to agree with the secretaries, but others were skeptical, wondering what assures that the next deadline would be met.

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