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Breaking Down Barriers

President Bush's proposal to create a Cabinet post for homeland security could make it easier to use IT to stop terrorist attacks.
The creation of a cabinet post for homeland security should make it easier for intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to share information that could protect the nation from terrorist attacks, according to President Bush. "Information must be fully shared so we can follow every lead to find the one that may prevent tragedy," Bush said in a nationally televised address Thursday.

The administration proposes the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, which would incorporate dozens of federal agencies, including the Secret Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Customs, and Immigration. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, who's expected to head the new department, said elevating his job to a Cabinet secretary would give him the power to realign personnel and technology to accomplish security goals.

Giving Ridge the authority to get the job done is the right move, people inside and outside of government say. "Up until now, Tom Ridge was given the most difficult job in federal government but wasn't given the power to get it done," says Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Thomas Conaway, managing principal/defense for Unisys Global Public Sector business, says a Cabinet-level department would provide ownership for key IT initiatives to collect and analyze data and break down barriers among various agencies that address homeland defense. "Anything that brings the owners of data together into a forum and readily share information will make implementation of technology easier," Conaway says.

The new department would have four divisions: border transportation and security; emergency preparedness and response; chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear countermeasures; and information analysis and infrastructure protection, which would draw from several agencies, including the FBI. The agency's national infrastructure protection program will be part of the division. The Secret Service would be a separate unit within the new department.

Still, several important agencies, such as the CIA and FBI, would remain independent of the new department, which first must be authorized by Congress. Conaway says the new department could serve as a facilitator to get other agencies to cooperate on data sharing. "Bringing in technology for homeland security isn't a technology issue; it's more of a data-sharing issue, a business-process issue, and a cultural issue," he says.

The new department is expected to take the lead in the design and implementation of an interagency IT architecture, in which Office of Management and Budget associate director Mark Forman, the administration's de facto CIO, says "will support efforts to find, track, and respond to terrorists' threats ... in a way that improves both the time of response and quality of decisions."

Bush's proposal won the quick endorsement of one IT industry group, the Business Software Alliance, whose president, Robert Holleyland, in a letter to Bush says he's "optimistic that this restructuring will help expedite the administration release of a national strategy for information security." IT vendors see business opportunities in providing homeland-security solutions to the government.

Such a department could address a problem faced by many private businesses: IT vendors and providers who say their technology-based products and solutions to homeland-security challenges are often ignored because there's no one place to bring them. "Their sincerity and commitment are of the highest order," said George Bohlinger, executive associate commissioner for management at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service--one of the agencies to be absorbed by the new Homeland Security department--in prepared testimony before the House Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy on Friday. "Unfortunately, in many instances, they perceive the federal government as an unresponsive bureaucracy."

Said Dave Marin, communications director for Rep. Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who chairs the panel: "This could provide vendors one-stop shopping with some clout."

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Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer