Customs plays homeland role

Officials mapping out the proposed Homeland Security Department are considering expanding the Customs Service modernization project to help fight the war against terrorism.

The multibillion-dollar program, called the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE), is designed to put Customs' systems on one unified network that will connect every U.S. border and port entry point. The system would make it easier to track imports and exports, which exceed $1 trillion a year.

Homeland security officials now want to develop ACE so the system's functionality could be shared with other agencies that would become part of the new department.

"While this was sized for Customs in mind, some of the capacity could be shared," said S.W. "Woody" Hall Jr., Customs' chief information officer. "The infrastructure piece can be used for anything.... The savings comes from everyone deciding to do it the same way and to build off the same base."

For example, Hall said ACE could be used by the Transportation Security Administration to check the passenger lists from international flights before travelers arrive in the United States. It could be used by intelligence agencies to spot trends or to automate non-intrusive inspection equipment for both ports and people. "It would not be as expensive as trying to run multiple networks everyplace," Hall said.

Officials from the 22 agencies that would become part of the new department are meeting weekly at the Office of Homeland Security to draw up plans for the department, which still must be approved by Congress. ACE has become an important part of the discussion about how to build the new agency.

"ACE has some really strong components in place," said Jim Flyzik, a senior adviser to Tom Ridge, who heads the Office of Homeland Security.

Besides the Customs infrastructure, officials also are looking at the Coast Guard's Deepwater modernization project and pieces of TSA's recently awarded Information Technology Managed Services (ITMS) contract, according to Flyzik.

The Deepwater program would replace an aging fleet of cutters, aircraft, sensors and the supporting command, control, communications and surveillance systems. But Deepwater and TSA's ITMS are in their early development compared with ACE, which was awarded to IBM Corp. in April 2001 and was designed to develop one system to handle billions of dollars' worth of import and export data.

ACE has become an important component of the expanding mission to protect the country as well as streamline and create more efficient systems.

"The infrastructure consolidation is going to occur with or without the department," said Mark Forman, associate director for IT and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget.

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