House committee sets IT priorities for DHS

A new authorization bill might signal lawmakers’ frustration with the department’s policies and practices.

The House Homeland Security Committee has passed an authorization bill outlining several information technology initiatives for the Homeland Security Department. Some critics say the bill shows that lawmakers are losing patience with DHS’ IT efforts.

The authorization legislation gives the committee a framework for oversight and communicates its priorities to the department. Some House members apparently believe the department moves too sluggishly to address IT issues and needs the spur.

“I think there’s a growing receptivity on Capitol Hill to these kinds of issues,” said Paul Kurtz, executive director of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance (CSIA). “I’ve seen people asking more questions, and they’ve been more aggressive about saying they are dissatisfied.”

DHS officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The House bill, which authorizes $34.7 billion in DHS spending for fiscal 2007, details various programs and policies the department should implement. For example, it would establish a group of DHS chief operating officers who would have control over their counterparts in various DHS agencies, have direct authority over planning and operations, and have the authority to direct budget spending and control other financial resources.

Included in that group is DHS’ chief information officer and chief security officer. The IT industry has criticized DHS for creating a CIO position that does not report directly to DHS’ top executives.

In a report late last year, the DHS inspector general said the CIO was not positioned to integrate IT at the department, and as a result, DHS was still missing critical components in its integration plan. “Despite federal laws and requirements, the CIO is not a member of the senior management team with authority to strategically manage departmentwide technology assets and programs,” wrote Richard Skinner, the department’s IG.

The new bill calls for DHS to establish a comprehensive IT network architecture for coordinating and sharing information among various DHS intelligence agencies. DHS would also have to establish a detailed grants program for first responders.

“The House committee actually reached out to county and local governments to pull this together,” said Dalen Harris, associate legislative director at the National Association of Counties. “There will ultimately be a need for some kind of authorization bill to be passed.”

How soon that will happen is not clear, however. Even though the full House Homeland Security Committee eventually passed its bill by a bipartisan vote of 30-1, House leaders did not schedule any action on it on the floor. It remained in limbo when Congress adjourned for its August break.

The inaction comes from a classic turf battle, said James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow for national security and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, and an early proponent of congressional action.The House Homeland Security Committee is in jurisdictional dispute with other committees, he said.

Some of the same jurisdictional issues have come up in the Senate, he said, but the Senate never had the desire to present overarching authorization legislation, preferring instead to focus on individual issues.

DHS critics say the pendulum is beginning to swing to a point where pressure from Congress could begin to produce action by DHS. The CSIA, for example, has been pushing the department to fill the position of assistant secretary to lead a DHS Office of Cybersecurity and Telecommunications. That post remains unfilled more than a year after Secretary Michael Chertoff first announced it.

“Ultimately, if DHS was doing its job, this bill would not be necessary,” Kurtz said.


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House wants to ratchet up oversight

The House authorization bill for the Homeland Security Department, H.R. 5814, would, among other things:

  • Give the department’s chief operating officers, which include the chief procurement, information and security officers, direct authority over their counterparts in DHS agencies, including control of finances.

  • Establish a departmentwide information technology network based on the Markle Foundation’s proposal for a Systemwide Homeland Security Analysis and Resource Exchange network.

  • Establish a National Biosurveillance Integration System to help protect against biological events that threaten national security.

  • Establish an Office of Cybersecurity and Telecommunications to be led by an assistant secretary.

  • Provide for smarter and faster funding of emergency responders.

Source: H.R. 5814
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