Info sharing gains momentum

An initiative for improving information sharing among federal, state and local agencies is gaining momentum, with the law enforcement community gaining access to new sources of information to help combat crime and terrorism.

From September 2002 to December 2002, participants completed at least the initial integration of networks from the FBI, the State Department, local law enforcement and the intelligence community, enabling law enforcement and federal officials across the country to collaborate on investigations and share unclassified information and analysis.

Although work remains, analysts and employees are already pleased with the result, officials said recently at the Government Convention on Emerging Technologies in Las Vegas.

"We have the opportunity to make the most significant impact on law enforcement in decades, just by getting us on one network," said Craig Sorum, chief of the Law Enforcement Online (LEO) Unit at FBI headquarters. As the name indicates, LEO serves the law enforcement community.

The initiative so far links three primary systems: the FBI's LEO, the State Department's OpenNet and the intelligence community's Open Source Information System, with OSIS serving as the hub. All three systems are intranet-based networks designed for sharing unclassified information and analysis, providing users with secure e-mail, online chat rooms, bulletin boards and similar tools.

State and local law enforcement officers can access those federal resources thanks to the recent integration of LEO and the Regional Information Sharing Systems program. RISS is a federally funded program that consists of six regional centers that share intelligence and coordinate efforts against criminal networks that operate across jurisdictions (see related story).

The integration simplifies the task of finding information in cases that cross traditional law enforcement boundaries.

"Why go look at a bunch of boxes when one box will serve your needs?" asked Miles Matthews, a senior official with the Counterdrug Intelligence Executive Secretariat at the Justice Department.

The new connections allow additional civilian agencies to access OSIS, where the intelligence community has centralized all of the unclassified homeland security information it has gathered, said John Brantley, director of the Intelink Management Office, which runs OSIS.

In addition to providing new information to new partners, the network allows collaboration "that simply didn't exist before," Brantley said.

There's more still to come. Within the next two weeks, officials will finalize a memorandum of understanding that will allow State to set up an OSIS Data Mart, providing broader access to the Consular Lookout and Support System visa database, said David McKee, deputy director of State's intelligence resources and planning office.

Initially, the system will simply provide access to visa database updates. But State officials plan to develop a Web front end to the system so officials can run queries against the database from anywhere worldwide, he said.

The connection to the federal intelligence community through LEO could be critical for state and local law enforcement officials who are always seeking more timely information from the federal government, said Steve Hodges, national issues coordinator for RISS.

RISS also has several new initiatives under way that will increase its information-sharing resources, including one directly supported by the Office of Homeland Security as a pilot project, Hodges said.

And local law enforcement will soon have another avenue into the collaboration, Sorum said. LEO also is the backbone for the Joint Terrorism Task Force Information Sharing Initiative pilot programs, which integrate federal, state and local databases in specific regions that the FBI is expanding to cities nationwide.

Following a successful demonstration of a regional information-sharing project in St. Louis, the FBI is piloting the initiative there and in seven other cities.

As part of the initiative, federal, state and local law enforcement will develop an information warehouse that will bring together databases from all participating agencies and provide investigators with software for searching and analyzing that data.

By the end of February, officials expect to have pilot projects running in St. Louis and San Diego. In the next two months, further pilot projects will go live in Norfolk, Va., and Baltimore, involving the Navy. And in May, the pilot project is expected to be ready in Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Spokane, Wash., for a joint exercise in the Northwest regarding weapons of mass destruction.

The October 2002 demonstration in St. Louis — which involved the FBI and law enforcement agencies from Missouri and neighboring Illinois — proved that open information sharing at all levels "saves months and months of time of the analysts trying to piece this information together," said Bill Eubanks, manager of the initiative.

Often, officers in one jurisdiction do not even know that they have information that could assist another jurisdiction's investigation. "We're not connected, and this helps us connect," Eubanks said. The project began before Sept. 11, 2001, but it is now funded as part of the FBI's homeland security efforts.

FBI officials are also talking to other agencies about incorporating their information, including databases at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Customs Service, the Coast Guard and the Drug Enforcement Administration, Eubanks said.

Although homeland security is not the only purpose for integrating those networks, officials at the Office of Homeland Security and the new Homeland Security Department are closely watching what is being done and hoping to build on it, said Lee Holcomb, director of infostructure at the office.

"We need to work with [these agencies] and champion the establishment of an effective sensitive but unclassified network," he said.

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