Cooper out of the frying pan

Steve Cooper, the Homeland Security Department's first chief information officer, submitted his resignation April 4, leaving one of the largest, most complex and most pressured federal agencies without a top information technology leader.

His decision comes as the department faces increased scrutiny to rein in costs and improve efficiency while effectively protecting the nation. It also opens up a new competition among some of the most talented and powerful CIOs in Washington, D.C., to replace him.

Cooper said he had recommended that the acting CIO come from inside DHS' IT leadership.

"It's regrettable because he has really put his life and blood into this," said Tom Ragland, who worked under Cooper as director of operations for the Bush administration's Office of Homeland Security in 2002.

Cooper had the analytical skills to build a new, seamless, enterprisewide infrastructure out of the 22 agencies that came together in DHS, Ragland said. Cooper also had the charisma to persuade and reassure 22 CIOs that he would respect their individual missions while crafting an overall vision for the department, he said.

Cooper worked to improve information sharing among federal, state and local government agencies. He created the Homeland Security Information Network and the Homeland Security Data Network and set up an IT security program in which DHS officials certified and accredited 68 percent of their systems in 2004.

However, despite Cooper's efforts, the department's IT systems often received negative reviews from DHS' inspector general. In 2004, DHS got an F for poor compliance with Federal Information Security Management Act requirements. Less than 34 percent of the department's major applications were accredited and certified as secure in 2003.

The IG said a year ago that DHS officials had made progress toward solving their management challenges, but they would need five to seven years to implement improvements to grants and financial management, border protection, intelligence efforts and technology upgrades.

Cooper said he thinks he did well at everything he was asked to do. But he emphasized that the work of building DHS' IT infrastructure was a team effort. "I provided the vision, but the 6,000 [DHS] IT professionals made it real," he said.

When asked what accomplishment he is proudest of as CIO, Cooper had one answer — surviving.

Cooper accomplished a great deal without the authority or staff he needed, said James Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "If someone went out to get a cup of coffee, no one was there to answer the phones," he said.

In a December 2004 report, Carafano suggested giving the DHS CIO position more authority. The CIO job at DHS is one of the hardest of its kind, he said, adding that the unrelenting pressure, long hours and diversity of stakeholders within and outside the department make the position incredibly challenging.

Judi Hasson and Rutrell Yasin contributed to this story.

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