Chertoff: Hands off FEMA; upgrade IT

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff  said that the Obama administration shouldn't carve the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from the Homeland Security Department and that DHS should continue to invest in information technology systems.

DHS is beginning to achieve organizational maturity and stability, Chertoff said in a meeting with reporters Dec. 9.

He disagreed with some suggestions that the next administration, and his designated successor, Arizona Gov, Janet Napolitano, should separate FEMA from DHS and make it an independent agency again. DHS needs FEMA to provide an integrated approach to emergency protection, prevention and response, Chertoff said.

“All the pieces of the department fit together thematically, such as dealing with the border, transportation, how to keep bad things out," Chertoff said. "FEMA gives us the response and mitigation pieces, which round out DHS prevention and protection pieces."

If the incoming Obama administration removed FEMA, the agency would probably focus on what it has traditionally done -- dealing with hurricanes and natural disasters, he said, “No one would have ownership or responsibility for response or mitigation,” he added.

If a problems such as biological attacks spanned agency responsibilities, it would be harder to get the two agencies to connect, he said. “When you manage an incident, you want someone that can manage the whole spectrum," he added. "I think the reason to integrate is for the ability to do all these things.”

When the Bush administration created DHS, it was an immature organization, where every agency focused on its own task and relied on its individual information systems, Chertoff said. That is changing now, so he advised his successor to delay any major changes.

“Every time you threaten a reorganization, let alone carry one out, everyone stops. They don’t know who their boss is going to be or what they’ll be doing. Everybody has their own idea how we could have organized,” he said.

“At some point, people need stability to have a system that is predictable and works,” he said, adding that after a period of stability, the agency executive can then choose to eliminate, combine or add functions.

In accomplishing organizational maturity, DHS has consolidated some of its computer systems in financial management and reduced some of its major financial management weaknesses, Chertoff said. DHS also was able to build a joint planning and execution capability for its Office of Planning and Coordination, which let the department analyze a problem, build a plan across its agencies and establish metrics to help them achieve the plan, he said.

“In general, [information technology] investment tends to get less attention because it’s not glamorous,” Chertoff said.

DHS must continue to reduce the number of its Internet gateways under the Trusted Internet Connection information security initiative and deploy the next generation of Einstein technology to monitor traffic at agency Internet connection points to support the TIC, he said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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