Info sharing bill advances in House

Working with unusual speed, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill June 13 to make it easier for federal agents to share intelligence tips with their state and local counterparts.

The Homeland Security Information Sharing Act is one piece in what is expected to be a growing arsenal of legislation to protect Americans. It still faces debate in the Senate.

"State and local officials will be the first to respond to a terrorist threat," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the panel's chairman. "We must provide a way to get this information quickly."

The bill requires the president, the attorney general and the CIA director to develop procedures for federal agencies to share classified or sensitive threat information. It requires agencies to declassify that information before sharing it and to omit certain data, such as the names of sources, from a database.

However, Democrats on the House panel were skeptical that the legislation is strong enough to protect privacy rights.

"We have a dilemma," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "We all agree there should be more surveillance, [but] we are worried about misuse."

Although Frank and other lawmakers agreed that information sharing is essential in the fight against terrorism, they said it is important to sanitize information and make sure there is no abuse of the system.

But local law enforcement officials see the legislation as an important counterterrorism effort.

"Information sharing is critically important," said John Cary Bittick, sheriff of Monroe County, Ga., and president of the National Sheriffs' Association. "It is even more critical if we are going to be successful in preventing and preparing for terrorism. All levels of law enforcement — federal, state and local — must cooperate, must utilize their skills and must share information if the nation is to win the war on terrorism."

And most lawmakers expressed continued horror about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the failure of law enforcement to foresee them. "Wouldn't it have been great to punch in 'flight school' and 'Moussaoui'" on a database? asked Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a co- sponsor of the information sharing bill.

Zacarias Moussaoui, who officials say was to be the 20th hijacker on Sept. 11, was arrested before the attacks. Although an FBI agent questioned why he had been taking flying lessons, law enforcement officials did not make the connection until after the terrorist attacks.

Although Congress is determined to give agencies the tools to prevent another attack, lawmakers struggled last week trying to determine how to create an effective Homeland Security Department.

The Senate will open hearings June 20 on the proposal for a Homeland Security Department as congressional leaders push to create it by the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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