House OKs homeland bill

The homeland security bill passed Nov. 13 by the House of Representatives relies heavily on technology to safeguard the nation against terrorists and other threats.

The bill orders actions that range from appointing an undersecretary for science and technology to creating a Homeland Security Advanced Research and Projects Agency modeled after the Defense Advanced Research and Projects Agency set up to win the Cold War.

Its central provision establishes a Homeland Security Department, a new federal agency to be assembled from parts of 22 existing agencies and departments with missions as diverse as protecting the borders, responding to disasters and fighting animal, plant and human diseases.

The agencies are expected to bring $2 billion worth of technology buying power to the new department.

The House vote is the second in less than four months to create a Homeland Security Department. An earlier House bill was stalled in the Senate by a battle over President Bush's demand for the power to hire, fire and transfer employees of the new department regardless of civil service protections.

A compromise in the new bill gives the president most of the authority he sought, but requires mediation and negotiations with unions.

The bill (H.R. 5710), which passed 299 to 121 in the House, is expected to pass in the Senate this week or next.

Legislation to create a Homeland Security Department was introduced by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and was first opposed by President Bush. In June 2002, Bush reversed his position.

Lieberman said establishing the new department is "long overdue," but he is concerned about "special interest provisions" in the House bill.

Some key technology provisions in the bill include:

* A one-year delay in the Jan. 1, 2003, deadline for airports to screen all luggage for explosives.

* Setting minimum-security guidelines for federal computer systems.

* Limits on financial damages and restrictions on claims that can be made against technology vendors over the deployment of anti-terrorism technologies.

* Guarantees of secrecy if companies disclose technological vulnerabilities to the government. Disclosures would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

* Creation of a technology clearinghouse to help entrepreneurs and inventors present homeland security ideas to appropriate government officials.

* Stronger penalties for cybercrimes.

* A requirement that federal intelligence agencies share information with state and local governments.

The bill also blocks the transfer of the Computer Security Division from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to the Homeland Security Department.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who backed the plan to create a Homeland Security Research and Development Agency, predicted it would prove critical in defending the nation against threats.

"Improving intelligence analysis, cybersecurity, border security and emergency response all will require the invention and deployment of new technologies," said Boehlert, who is chairman of the House Science Committee.

"Like the Cold War, the war on terrorism will be won as much in the laboratory as on the battlefield," he said.

The Business Software Alliance, a software trade organization, praised the provision that would set minimum-security standards for government computer systems.

"Improving the security of federal computer systems should be a top priority," said Robert Holleyman, the association's president. "This bill contains the strongest security program ever designed for federal government information systems."

Technology companies were also pleased by the liability limits and disclosure exemptions, said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. "Without such limitations, homeland security contractors would face unlimited liability exposure in the event of terrorist attacks."

Imposing limits "will unleash industry's best and brightest to deploy the most advanced technologies and services to defend the nation," Miller said.

"Passage of the bill has helped bring order to the whole process" for technology companies that hope to sell products and services to the federal government, said John Palafoutas, senior vice president of the American Electronics Association.

Having a bill that seems likely to be accepted without significant changes by the Senate allows companies to start developing business plans, he said.


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