Thursday, January 27, 2005

GAO: Homeland Security Info Sharing Lacking

Government Accountability Office Places Homeland Security Information Sharing on “High-Risk” List

By Mike Nartker
Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON — U.S. efforts to improve the sharing of homeland security-related information were included on a list of government programs at “high risk” for fraud, waste and mismanagement released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office (see GSN, Dec. 13, 2004).

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, “this area has received increased attention but the federal government still faces formidable challenges in gathering, identifying, analyzing and disseminating key information … in an appropriate and timely manner,” a GAO study says.

Among the problems cited by congressional auditors was the failure of the Homeland Security Department to meet a December 2004 presidential deadline to prepare a plan on managing information-sharing responsibilities. In addition, failures to improve the consolidation and standardization of information have hindered attempts to consolidate terrorist watch lists and integrate fingerprint databases used by the Homeland Security and Justice departments, the study says.

The study also notes poor efforts by the federal government in providing homeland security-related information to the private sector. As an example, the GAO report cites chemical industry officials complaining of not having received “specific and accurate threat information in a timely manner” from law enforcement agencies. This in turn, the study says, has resulted in the chemical industry being unable to design adequate facility security systems and in the government being unable to adequately assess the vulnerability of chemical facilities to terrorist attacks.

This year marked the first time that homeland security-related information sharing was included on the GAO “high-risk” list, which the agency has prepared since 1990. The purpose of the list “is to bring light to areas that need attention,” said David Walker, the agency’s comptroller general.

“History has shown that with light comes heat, and with heat comes action, and that’s exactly what it takes in order to achieve success at removing high-risk areas,” Walker said yesterday during a press conference to unveil the 2005 list.

Walker was joined at the Capitol Hill press conference by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and top committee Democrat Joseph Lieberman (Conn.); House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) and top committee Democrat Henry Waxman (D-Calif.); along with Senators George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii).

Collins said the massive intelligence reform bill approved by Congress and signed into law late last year “should produce significant improvements” in information sharing. The law requires establishment of an information-sharing environment, the exchange of information among officials at all levels of government and the private sector and a council to support the dissemination of information.

The Homeland Security Department today disputed the findings of the GAO report.

“We disagree with the assessment,” department spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich said, adding that that agency “has created new comprehensive information-sharing capabilities that previously did not exist.”

As examples, she cited the creation of a Web-based information sharing portal, known as the Homeland Security Information Network, that is available to all 50 states and 50 major urban areas, and is being expanded to the county level. Petrovich also said that over the past two years, about 200 departmental and FBI bulletins have been distributed to state and local officials, as well as the private sector.

In addition to information sharing, the list this year also continues to include two other homeland security-related functions — implementing the Homeland Security Department, which has been on the list since 2003; and protecting information systems and critical infrastructures from attack, which has been in place since 1997.

While not yet a “high risk” issue, the Government Accountability Office also noted the “emerging” area of completing comprehensive threat and risk assessments. Such assessments are needed, in part, to help the Homeland Security Department best determine how to allocate resources, the study says.

The Senate homeland security panel is set to hold an oversight hearing on the Homeland Security Department today.

The GAO list, Lieberman said yesterday, “sounds a clarion and urgent call to Congress and the administration to react, to respond, to act in a way that next year when a comptroller general makes his report, homeland security, which is inherently about protecting the American people from risk, is no longer on the high-risk list.”
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