Breaking down barriers

A State Department plan to tighten the nation's borders by pooling data across 40 federal agencies is emerging as a model for federal efforts to share information and break down barriers that have prevented governmentwide collaboration.

The plan would make it easier for investigators at embassies and consulates to do background checks on applicants before issuing visas at embassies around the world — thus closing a hole that allowed terrorists to enter the United States and carry out the worst terrorist attacks in the nation's history.

Even before Sept. 11, State officials had been developing a plan to give embassies and consulates access to many government databases for background checks on foreign nationals seeking visas. But now the project, which has taken on unprecedented urgency in the wake of the attacks, is emerging as a model for agencies across government to share information to support homeland security and other endeavors.

"Enhanced collaboration, knowledge management and information sharing among U.S. foreign affairs agencies overseas will definitely lead to significant improvements in the conduct of U.S. foreign relations and strengthened national and homeland security," said Fernando Burbano, State's chief information officer.

The program, known as the Overseas Presence Interagency Collaboration/ Knowledge Management System, would take advantage of existing information already scattered in a variety of databases but not tied together in a single network. Linking those databases would give embassy officials a wealth of information to consider when doing a background check on a visa applicant.

The General Accounting Office recognized State's problem in a November report to Congress. Although the department is responsible for supporting federal agencies' international activities and facilitating interagency information sharing, the means to share information does not exist, according to GAO, "resulting in agencies not getting the right information to the right people at the right time."

State is not alone in its problem with information sharing. Before the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, many federal agencies had made attempts to share data. There have been a few successes, but agencies have so far failed to figure out how to develop a truly seamless e-government environment.

The State blueprint is the first major attempt to break down the stovepipes and cultural barriers that have made it difficult, if not impossible, for agencies to cooperate on a broad scale.

"Better information sharing among the agencies is long overdue, and maybe the domestic agencies could learn from this effort also," said Bruce McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget.

Ultimately, State officials envision two Web-based systems — an unclassified but sensitive database and a classified database — that will give overseas investigators access to information gathered by domestic agencies. All of the information will be available to investigators based overseas via a Web browser and portals.

"We didn't want to reinvent the wheel," Burbano said. "We wanted to share documents, link to databases. The FBI guy may drag in data from the FBI, then the CIA could bring in data," and then both parties could discuss the information via videoconferencing or instant messaging technology.

Databases will be protected with firewalls, and transactions will be secured using public-key infrastructure technology, which combines digital certificates and encryption.

Government officials and technology experts hope the State system will also become the model for sharing information across different levels of government via a network that links federal, state and local governments without turf wars or other obstacles.

It is "absolutely the right approach," said Wendy Rayner, New Jersey's CIO who represents the states on the federal CIO Council. "We must do cross-agency development. Why should we build our own systems when we do similar work?"

Some experts in the field see State's efforts as a start but not the definitive answer. Jack Mattera, director of computer forensics for the Intelligence Group, said expanded background checks do not tell authorities the entire story.

"If the person is a true terrorist who has spent most of his time overseas in an underdeveloped country, there is not going to be a lot of information, period," said Mattera, who once worked for State doing background checks overseas.

Three companies — Accenture, Science Applications International Corp. and SRA International Inc., which has enlisted IBM Global Services to lead the development effort — have been awarded a contract to develop proposals for a pilot project by January 2002.

State officials expect to launch the pilot project next year — with about 2,400 users testing the system in Mexico, India and the United States — and fully implement the collaborative system by fiscal 2003, according to Burbano.

Most of the databases that will make up the system already exist. The real chore is providing the links between those databases. So even though early industry estimates have placed the cost of the project at more than $200 million, Burbano thinks it will be far less.

So does Ray Bjorklund, vice president of consulting services at Federal Sources Inc., who estimates that this kind of project could cost between $30 million and $50 million. He said the biggest problem is not building a new system, but "defining what information should go into that technical architecture.

"You can't just plug in a system. You have to decide what information to manage," he said. "It's very challenging, and it's not going to happen overnight."

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