Are we safer?

It's been a year since airliners crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania — a year in which Americans turned to the federal government for assurance that they could feel safe again. The government's response to the attacks, as we predicted in Federal Computer Week a year ago, has been largely to turn to information technology for help. Are we safer? It's a mixed report, according to this issue's feature story.

For critics who say government has not moved fast enough, those in charge of IT and homeland defense point to numerous systems in place or soon to be deployed. Customs inspectors use systems to check for bombs in cargo containers, and an Immigration and Naturalization Service system tracks foreign visitors.

However, the low-hanging IT fruit has been picked, and the tougher — and arguably more effective — IT programs that can significantly improve security are facing tough political opposition or technological and cultural obstacles. Collecting and storing information are not the problems; accessing and connecting dots within the data are, and those will be problems for IT to solve.

History is not on our side. The Brookings Institution warns that the proposed Homeland Security Department will not have the capability to properly analyze the data, and history indicates that government's first crack at monumental efforts typically falls short. And many observers remain concerned about the loss of privacy.

But the men and women putting together the IT plan for homeland security are among the best in government and have proven track records. Their task may well be the most demanding one that the federal IT community has faced. Will delays occur? Yes. Will bad ideas see the light of day? Most certainly.

The challenge is to give these leaders the resources they need and the room to make mistakes. Given that — and input from academia, think tanks and the private sector — Americans should be optimistic that the new IT systems will work and policies will be followed.

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