Better information sharing on the horizon

Lawmakers are cautiously optimistic that the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies are on the way to sharing better, more relevant and clearer threat information with state and local law enforcement officials.

Through the Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group (ITACG), agencies will work with state and local officials to develop a common vocabulary and a standard process for what types of information need to flow to and from state fusion centers.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee, and other members of Congress met today in Washington with ITACG members, including federal, state and local law enforcement officers. She said she is hopeful information-sharing barriers will begin to come down.

“The reason we wanted this is not a question of horizontal information sharing, the National Counterterrorism Center is doing reasonably well at that,” Harman said. “We need better vertical information sharing.”

She added that the best way to do that was to have a state and local perspective at the center.

“It is absolutely critical for information at the national level to be communicated to state and local [officials] in useful form,” Harman said. ITACG “needs to help create a language that is not presently in threat reporting so at the local level they can make judgments of how serious the threats are.”

ITACG includes four local law enforcement officers, who are members of the group for one year; four federal members; and two federal contractors.

Harman and others have been calling for state and local participation at the federal level when analyzing possible threats, but DHS and other agencies have resisted, she said.

So lawmakers added this requirement to the Implementing the 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act, signed into law in August. It took another month until DHS agreed to participate through a memorandum of agreement, which it signed Sept. 30, to begin implementing the coordination group.

This standard taxonomy is one of the group’s top priorities. Harman used the recent threat against shopping malls in Los Angeles and Chicago as an example of how not having a common vocabulary impedes information sharing.

“The problem was the source was unreliable and that was not well understood by the state and local officials,” she said. “Information moved and people got spooked and then it had to be clarified. If on the front end everyone understood that the source was unreliable, this wouldn’t have been an issue.”

Harman added that DHS and other feds too often dump a huge amount of data on state fusion centers, and they cannot wade through all the information to understand it.

“The state and local officers will help the federal agencies discriminate the type of product needed to go to specific communities,” said a Democratic subcommittee staff member, who participated in the call but requested anonymity. “The state and local officers will help shape those products.”

Harman said she has a few concerns including whether there are enough state and local representatives and whether the group has adequate funding.

She said the subcommittee would hold hearings about ITACG’s progress in 2008, and the group must submit a report to Congress by February 2008.

“We don’t have national coverage…but over time this group needs to cover more of the country,” Harman said. “It also makes no sense to have the entire class for one year. Maybe we need to stagger or extend their time with the group.”

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