Info-sharing czar touts U.S. progress

The government is at the “end of the beginning” of its efforts to successfully share homeland security and intelligence information, with significant cultural and administrative challenges still ahead, the country’s information sharing chief has said.

Ambassador Thomas McNamara, program manager for the director of national intelligence’s Information Sharing Environment (PM-ISE), had borrowed the famous Winston Churchill quote to describe the state of information sharing across the federal government.

“Sharing has got to become the rule, not the exception,” McNamara added during the keynote address at an AFCEA International conference today in Washington. “What we’ve got to do is vastly expand what we have already accomplished.”

McNamara told the crowd of mostly Defense Department employees and industry consultants that if the government failed to keep pace with the information age and improve its information sharing, it would be a disaster.

Through the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, Congress directed President Bush to select a program manager to oversee the governmentwide ISE. The PM-ISE is responsible for getting authorities to do something that observers say did not happen well enough before the 2001 terrorist attacks—share information.

McNamara said that the need-to-know culture is at the heart of the problem. Getting middle managers engaged and passionate about improving information sharing is critical to tackling the problem, he added, also citing budgetary constraints as another problem.

“The private sector is decades ahead of the federal government in information management,” said McNamara, who was appointed to head the office in March 2006. “We don’t have to first change the culture and then find the technology that will assist us—the technology is there waiting.”

He pointed to the establishment and growth of state and local fusion centers, which states and local governments started after the terrorist attacks, as an example of progress. The centers now increasingly benefit from federal guidance, participation and funding. He also cited the 2004 establishment of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which he characterized as a national fusion center, as an example of an enhanced information-sharing environment in which state, local and federal authorities work together. Uniform standards, such as the suspicious-activity reporting standards that PM-ISE published in January, are also central to improving information flows across all levels of government, he added.

On March 13, McNamara will testify before the House Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee about progress that federal authorities are making in sharing information with the state and local counterparts. The Homeland Security Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has been under fire from the subcommittee chairwoman and the committee chairman for progress that the department has made in including state and local governments through the Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group at the NCTC.

McNamara said today that he thought the group was progressing, although not as quickly as he would have liked. He also told the crowd that state and local governments were “front-line defenders” against terrorism.

Although PM-ISE is working on information sharing among federal, state and local authorities, and the private sector, the office is tasked with improving information flows between federal officials who work in five areas: the intelligence community, foreign affairs, homeland security, law enforcement and defense. McNamara likened the different areas to buildings and said PM-ISE’s goal is not to construct a sixth building, but rather blend what is already out there.

“All we are trying to do is take the 'buildings' that exist and mesh them together,” he said.

McNamara laid out six major challenges associated with improving ISE:

  • Fixing the problem of security clearance reciprocity among federal, state and local agencies.

  • Identifying common processes and data standards for information sharing.

  • Maintaining a commitment to protecting privacy rights and civil liberties.

  • Rationalizing, standardizing and simplifying the procedures for handling terrorism, homeland security and law enforcement information, particularly unclassified information.

  • Accepting and managing risk rather than always trying to avoid it altogether.

  • Instituting a culture of information sharing for all levels of government with a focus on mid-level managers.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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