The Security Shuffle

Will the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reorganization mean better communications with local officials?

by / November 4, 2005
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff will put his stamp on the DHS through a major reorganization of the troubled agency, which is scheduled for October. State and local officials hope the changes will both improve federal disaster response and promote better intergovernmental communications.

The overhaul includes eliminating the position of the director for emergency preparedness and response, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and creating a new emergency preparedness division meant to focus exclusively on preparedness activities. In addition, FEMA will report directly to the secretary and be the department's response division.

The reorganization also creates a new Office of Intelligence and Analysis, tasked with disseminating information to appropriate federal, state and local partners.

But how much will the country, and specifically state and local public safety officials, benefit from the DHS reorganization? In August, during a break from meetings with DHS staff, Arizona Director of Homeland Security Frank Navarrete expressed guarded optimism.

"We're hearing the right words, and the sense of direction seems to be positive," Navarrete said. "Quite frankly [Chertoff] is taking on some pretty significant changes to streamline the operation, and make us all more efficient and effective."

Those changes include improving the way information is shared with state and local officials -- which has improved somewhat since 9/11, with the advent of the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) and as a result of Joint Terrorism Task Forces. But officials charged with protecting local communities continue to express frustration that intelligence is too often tardy and lacking detail by the time it reaches states.

More Specifically ...
The DHS convened two days of meetings in August with state and local officials to discuss Chertoff's six-point agenda for reorganization. The agenda focuses on preparing the nation for a devastating attack by securing transportation modes, improving cargo screening technology, improving border protection with technology, and enhancing information sharing with state and local government officials. This will include supporting data fusion centers emerging in a number of states, revising the Homeland Security Advisory System, creating a new Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and consolidating preparedness efforts.

The six-point agenda stemmed from an extensive department review undertaken by Chertoff soon after his appointment in March. The agency sustained a barrage of criticism that, in its two-year existence, it plodded toward a vague mission with an unfocused, poorly coordinated staff of 180,000 employees.

The summit included state homeland security directors and emergency managers from around the country who listened to Chertoff and his staff, and provided feedback on the upcoming changes.

"We recognize that information sharing is not perfect yet," said Valerie Smith, assistant press secretary of the DHS. "As the secretary pointed out in his speech on July 13, information sharing -- or better information sharing -- with state, local and tribal partners, is going to be one of the six most important priorities for the year ahead, and he did say he would announce more specifics in the next few weeks and months."

The DHS attempted to address this issue by creating the HSIN and a series of local Joint Terrorism Task Forces. But these moves haven't completely cured the problem.

The HSIN links the Homeland Security Operations Center to state homeland security offices, public safety departments, emergency operations centers and offices of the National Guard via computer-based communications.

Joint Terrorism Task Forces focus on homeland security intelligence matters. The FBI has a Joint Terrorism Task Force in each of the 56 FBI field offices throughout the country, as well as 10 stand-alone, formalized task forces in its largest satellite offices known as resident agencies, according to the FBI.

Sharing Intelligence
It is hoped that the new Office of Intelligence and Analysis will promote better communications among federal, state and local governments -- but some local officials are not holding their breath.

A handful of police chiefs, frustrated at hearing about homeland security alerts on CNN rather than from the federal government, are developing an informal network to share intelligence, saying the federal government's intelligence gathering and sharing networks just weren't working -- they weren't providing the real-time intelligence locals need to respond.

The idea developed during the second of the two London bombings this summer. Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, in Chicago for a meeting of police chiefs, was awakened at 3:30 a.m. by one of his deputies who was dispatched to London to share intelligence with local officials about the first bombings. The deputy happened to be there when the second bombings occurred and relayed the information to Bratton immediately.

The next day at the meeting, Bratton and chiefs from five other cities discussed the idea of an informal network.

"We saw firsthand at the meeting in Chicago on the day of the London bombings the fact that there were five cities in that room and we were able to, very quickly, work with information coming to us from London, basically kick information around: 'This is what I'm going to do in Los Angeles. What are you, Chuck Ramsey, going to do in Washington [D.C.]? What are you, Phil Cline, going to do in Chicago?"' Bratton said.

The idea is to quickly get information into the hands of officials in the cities determined to be the most likely targets of a terrorist attack, Bratton said. "Then let the local officials make determinations, while the federal government is making a determination if they want to go up [to orange alert] nationally, or in a specific industry like transportation."

That gives local officials more time to make decisions based on the intelligence received from the federal government, matched with intelligence gathered by local law enforcement.

The concept caught fire -- soon the DHS got wind of it and offered its help, Bratton said.

"When they heard about what we were attempting to do at the local level, [the DHS], along with the FBI, reached out, offering services to help the facilitation of information and the raw data that is still public-safety sensitive."

Bratton and the DHS have come to the agreement that the network will include 16 Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) cities -- possibly 17, since Las Vegas has received so many terrorist threats -- that will receive sensitive homeland security intelligence notices directly from the DHS. From those cities, the information will trickle down to others in the region. The UASI cities were identified by the DHS as particularly vulnerable based largely on population density, critical infrastructure and threat information.

"For example, I work closely in my region with the sheriff's department and the 44 cities in the Los Angeles County area," Bratton said. "So information that I'm getting, I'm sharing with my 16 colleagues in the major cities -- I'd then very quickly be in a position to move that information down into my region."

The police chiefs and the DHS are in the process of deciding who in each city will be the point of contact, and the preferred method of communication. "In our case, we use BlackBerries," Bratton said. "Somebody else might use some other type of notification."

Ideally the DHS will send notifications more quickly, because the notification wouldn't be subject to the vetting and editing process that is the trend of formal DHS communications to date. The idea is that the DHS will pass along threat information as it's received, letting local public safety officials decide the seriousness of each threat and how to react.

"What we'd be looking for is pretty raw data, quickly, with the clear understanding that this is raw data, and then each city would make the determination if it's something pertinent to them in a sense that, before the whole country goes up to orange alert, is this something going on that we have to make a quick decision on?" Bratton said.

Las Vegas Sheriff Bill Young said he gets notifications from the federal government about threats to his city, "quite a bit after the fact."

Young believes the DHS would comply with local officials' needs if it could. "I look at this as a technological fix," he said. "DHS would want to give it to every police chief in America if there was a mechanism to do so. What is that mechanism? It's going to end up being some kind of notification system and a service of some sort. I think it will ultimately end up in the FBI's hands because they work more closely with law enforcement."

The group will also ask the DHS to consider funding closed circuit video teleconferencing capabilities in each of the cities, allowing officials to communicate through video feeds.

Bratton acknowledged the difficulty for federal officials to communicate with some 16,000 law enforcement agencies in the country, which is why developing relationships is so important. "Really it might sound very simplistic," he said. "But interestingly enough, we haven't yet moved to the stage where we do this as a routine matter of course. We don't need all 16,000 agencies to be in the network on some of this information right away, so you need to have these various spheres of networking."

Relating to Cyber
State and local officials are also concerned by the lack of connectivity between the federal government and the states on cyber-security issues, as well as a general lack of interest in the issue.

Officials at state and local levels are hopeful that the addition of an assistant secretary for cyber and telecommunications security within the DHS will put a spotlight on cyber-security, which many say has been ignored.

Evidence of the lack of focus on cyber-security lies in the recent revolving door of cyber-security chiefs at the DHS, including a few that lasted one year or less.

"It's our sense that they left because of the frustration from not seeing a very concerted effort moving on these kinds of things," said Tom Jarrett, president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO). "I've tried to say in testimony that critical infrastructure by its very nature is critical, whether it's roads or airports or rivers or network infrastructure. It's as critical as anything that we have, and there's got to be much more of a focus toward it than what we've seen in the past."

The new assistant secretary will be responsible for identifying and assessing the vulnerability of critical telecommunications infrastructure and assets; providing timely, actionable and valuable threat information; and leading the national response to cyber and telecommunications attacks, according to a DHS press release.

Jarrett said he thinks the higher profile position on cyber-security within the DHS just might increase emphasis on the issue.

"We in the states, and at NASCIO as well, will be watching the changes very closely," Jarrett said. "We're hoping that it's going to really change. I'm not so sure the connection [with the DHS] has been very good, and the discussions have never been very good. That's been an issue for us in the states, and of course, something NASCIO has focused on at least on the cyber-side of things, which is our primary concern."

The DHS's Smith said the new position should mean more attention to cyber-security. "It does reflect that cyber-security is a priority within the department, something that will receive strong resources."

The reorganization as a whole could develop a focus on issues that Jarrett believes have gotten lost in the shuffle. "A lot of people ask, 'Have we started to forget what happened on 9/11?' I'm fearful that we have, from a larger perspective, both from a physical security side and the cyber-security side. I'm concerned about that."

Jarrett would also like to see the position of CIO within the DHS given more authority, but that may be wishful thinking because the reorganization calls for no changes in the reporting structure.

"I'm hearing it doesn't sound like it's going to be, but we're hopeful that they look at that and try to change that because we believe it's needed," he said.

Smith, however, said states and locals should benefit greatly from the reorganization, citing the consolidation of the State and Local Government Coordination Office and the Office of Legislative Affairs as one big perk.

"That single office will have lead responsibility to create consistent, efficient, useful communications with all government officials," she said. "It streamlines things operationally."

Another consolidation that should benefit states and locals is combining all preparedness efforts under a single directorate led by an Under Secretary for Preparedness. That will mean training, grants and medical preparedness -- under a new chief medical officer -- as well as cyber-security and infrastructure protection will fall under this position.

Smith said consolidating all preparedness efforts beneath the Under Secretary for Preparedness should create more accessibility for state and local officials.

"The same is true for reorganization across the board," she said. "Consolidating our intelligence functions into one office, all our preparedness functions into one office, even having one chief medical officer overseeing all medical response issues, will give our partners a better understanding of where responsibilities rest."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor