Chertoff reviews DHS

Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Department's new secretary, will conduct a top-down analysis of the department's organization, policies and operational programs, including a review of a proposed office that will consolidate the screening processes for people and cargo.

Jim Williams, director of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program, said nothing would be decided about the new Office of Screening Coordination and Operations (SCO) until the secretary completes that review, which might take several weeks.

Proposed under the Bush administration's fiscal 2006 spending plan, SCO will integrate multiple related screening activities into one separate office within the Border and Transportation Security Directorate and have an $847 million budget.

The idea is to create a more cohesive and streamlined approach, Williams said, to common screening procedures that detect, identify, track and prohibit individuals, cargo and vehicles that are deemed a threat or security risk. Both the House Select Committee on Homeland Security and the 9-11 Commission recommended that a comprehensive screening system needs to be designed to address common problems and establish common standards.

At a congressional hearing March 2, House lawmakers, who generally approved of the idea, said there were many unanswered questions about SCO, such as why some programs weren't included, whether the budget address upgrades to legacy systems that will have to be integrated, what cost savings are expected, and who is responsible for setting standards, to name a few.

Departmental officials acknowledged that many of the details still need to be worked out as Chertoff, who endorses the concept, completes his review.

The first phase will integrate screening processes that focus on individuals. In addition to U.S.-VISIT, several programs and activities from the Transportation Security Administration and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will be consolidated into SCO.

Tagged programs from TSA include Secure Flight, international flight crew vetting, Transportation Worker Identification Credential, Registered Traveler, hazardous materials commercial driver background checks, and the Alien Flight Student program background checks. From CBP, Free and Secure Trade, and the Secure Electronic Network for Traveler's Rapid Inspection and Nexus programs will be included.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who heads the House Homeland Security Committee's Economic Security, Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity Subcommittee, which held the hearing, asked whether different privacy standards exist among the different systems and databases that presumably would be integrated and whether officials would have problems accessing information.

Williams said all programs comply with federal privacy laws and all systems have privacy and security control systems and protocols such as what data to collect, how long it should be kept and would be done with it.

Both Deborah Spero, CPB's deputy commissioner, and Carol DiBattiste, TSA's deputy administrator, who also testified, said their agencies have taken extensive measures to protect data.

At the same time the DHS officials were testifying about SCO, Chertoff, was testifying before the House Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security Subcommittee in a nearby room.

"As the Department of Homeland Security marks its two-year anniversary this month, we now have the opportunity and obligation to benefit from experience and hindsight, look at how the pieces are fitting together, and see if the structure and systems we have in place today enable us to perform our core mission of protecting and safeguarding this nation," he said in testimony.

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