Panel: Feds must get over info-sharing turf wars

Members of Congress and the panel discussed establishing a federal Information Sharing Environment to help discard decades-old prejudices against interagency information.

Decades-old prejudices against interagency information sharing among federal intelligence and homeland security organizations are unacceptably slowing the adoption of needed information-sharing improvements, Congress members and a panel of experts agreed today.

Federal agencies are still using legal arguments that predate the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004 to justify not sharing information, said Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee.

The subcommittee discussed Congress’ support of the sharing of homeland security information and the role of John Russack, the information sharing program manager at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“Despite the enactment of the statute and the creation of the office of program manager, we have made minimal progress toward the establishment of a seamless information sharing system,” said Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, in a statement.

“You can change the law, you can change the technology, but you still need to change the culture; you still need to motivate institutions and individuals to share information,” Hamilton said.

“It is time to stop applauding first steps and to raise our expectations for progress,” said William Crowell, a member of the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, in a statement.

Congress and the president must put the same urgency into creating a seamless federal Information Sharing Environment (ISE) as it has into military intelligence on the battlefield, Crowell said. Improvements in information sharing will help prepare for terrorist attacks and natural disasters, he said.

It is not enough for everyone to say that information sharing is hard but necessary, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said. “We need to have a comprehensive series of carrots and sticks to ensure that this happens,” she said.

Technology isn’t the barrier to improved information sharing – policy, law, culture and business models are, Russack said.

A big challenge in implementing the ISE, Russack said, is ensuring that it simultaneously protects sources and methods, improves the quality and flow of information, and guards privacy and civil liberties.

Another major hurdle is improving two-way information sharing with state, local and tribal law enforcement and the private sector. “Most are really unhappy with the quality of information sharing” from federal sources, Russack said.

Federal intelligence and law enforcement bodies must share more information with their peers and let their partners know that the information they provide is valued, Russack said. Federal organizations with homeland security responsibilities should also share more information at the unclassified and open-source levels, he said.

Russack said the intelligence office will provide Congress with a report containing the specific details of the ISE by June 17, 2006.

The first meeting of the Information Sharing Council, created by President Bush last month, will be Nov. 18, Russack said. The council advises and informs federal departments and agencies on creating an interoperable, automated information-sharing environment.

President Bush and Congress must demand improvements in information sharing, Congress members, Hamilton and Crowell said. They also agreed that Russack’s office needs more authority, money and staff members to do its job.

The Office of Information Sharing Program Management received $96 million in the 2005 fiscal year and is working with the national intelligence director on getting a line item in the intelligence office’s budget for fiscal 2006, Russack told Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking Democrat.

Russack said the office would need $30 million a year to function, but he expects to get only $20 million a year. Lofgren and Simmons said they would work to get him the money he requested.

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