DHS infrastructure protection chief cites progress

The next administration should heed the homeland security lessons learned over the past six years rather than attempt an entirely new approach, the Homeland Security Department’s infrastructure protection chief has said.

“Every day I take a look in the rear view mirror before I look ahead,” Bob Stephan, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at DHS, said at a Nov. 26 event hosted by the George Washington University’s Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management.

Although it is impossible to protect everything, he said, DHS has made domestic targets less vulnerable to terrorist attacks and natural disasters and has improved the coordination of resources among federal, state and local authorities and the private sector.

Stephan cited the 2006 National Infrastructure Protection Plan as a critical development and a key to progress in protecting against terrorism and natural disasters. The plan sets infrastructure protection goals, standardizes requirements for funding, and lays out the responsibilities for federal, state and local authorities along with the private sector. The department plans to expand state and local partnerships and implement chemical security regulations in the next 14 months, he added.

Before the 2001 terrorist attacks, there was no integrated, national approach to protecting the nation's infrastructure, but “it’s a system now,” said Stephan, a retired Air Force colonel.

Everybody must be willing to bring their resources to the table, he added. “Everything we do depends on partnership.”

DHS’ relationships with state and local authorities have burgeoned since the terrorist attacks. For example, fusion centers, where local and national authorities share intelligence, have been established nationwide. Fifty-eight centers are operational or under development.

The National Strategy for Information Sharing, released last month, lays out the Bush administration’s plans to make fusion centers the focal point for sharing terrorism-related intelligence with nonfederal authorities and pledged federal funds for the centers. Privacy advocates worry about how information will be shared among jurisdictions in an environment where the all-hazards approach is mixed with federal counterterrorism dollars.

Stephan, who was senior director for critical infrastructure protection in the Executive Office of the President before joining DHS in 2005, said the department is mindful of privacy concerns. He also said fusion centers and his nationwide network of 78 DHS officers with extensive local contacts and experience help the department tailor its approach to the specific needs of a jurisdiction.

“It’s not a command and control environment, nor should it be,” he said. “I’m not getting bad vibes from the states at this point. In fact, I’m getting good vibes.”

That cooperation is critical, Stephan said, because natural disasters and terrorist attacks will likely occur in local and state jurisdictions rather than federally controlled areas.

The department is also focusing on cyberspace and the real-world problems  a cyberattack could cause, he said.

Stephan said he is confident that DHS will continue to improve before a new administration comes to power in January 2009. But expectations that the government can protect against everything all the time mean that “the realities and the expectations are a huge mismatch,” he said.

The perseverance of al Qaeda and its members’ willingness to die for their cause makes them the toughest enemy the United States has faced, he said. “For the rest of everybody’s lives sitting in this room, we are going to be doing this.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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