In the wake of the worst act of terrorism on American soil, political officials joined hands and vowed to put politics aside and work together to win a new war. They promised unprecedented cooperation between rival agencies and pledged billions of dollars to the battle. And they warned that a long, continued exercise would be the only way to defeat this new enemy.

Now a year later, with budgets on empty and an election upcoming, some are concerned that although intentions are good and effort is being made, the window of opportunity may be closing for the chance to effect change. That there's no money trickling down to where it needs to be, and that a huge reorganization at the federal level may only jumble things even more, and that old political habits are dying hard.

At the federal level, there's the look of politicians jockeying for the next elections and throwing money at programs that will win votes, such as the $180 billion farm bill OK'd by President Bush recently to help sew up the farm states. In the works is a new Department of Homeland Security, a body whose purpose would be to facilitate a collective effort between the feds and state and local agencies, but that threatens to instead create a whole new bureaucracy and with it even more political infighting.

At the state and especially the local levels, where these wars are ultimately fought, there is a sense of frustration among some that the first-responders have been left to fend for themselves on key issues, including cyber security and interoperability.

"People seem to have gone back to a routine," said Todd Sander, CIO of Tucson, Ariz. "It's a dangerous situation because the threat hasn't gone away."

Lost Opportunity?

In a recent editorial, Eric Holdeman, manager of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Services wrote: "...In the end, the unfortunate situation we are faced with today is that citizens we serve have the false perception that we are working together to make our communities safer. We are collectively living a lie."

In King County, first responders must compete with the population of cell-phone users during emergencies. There is no priority given to governmental services. After Sept. 11, the Office of Emergency Services saw an opportunity to gain some leverage with the stage and remedy the problem. But that opportunity is beginning to slip away. Holdeman compared it to a tractor pull "where initially it starts going pretty well, but then that dead weight of previous relationships kicks in and everybody has an ax to grind and progress slows down."

"To me, the big thing is this opportunity to try to develop relationships where there were no relationships before," Holdeman said. "As we get further away from Sept. 11, those lessons get lost in everyday politics."

Cyber space is seen as one of the key battlegrounds for future terrorist strikes, and yet some state and local government agencies, not to mention federal, may be as vulnerable as ever. They point to a lack of industry standards, a lack of understanding by political officials and a lack of dollars.

"What we really know is we're not secure," said Wincy Carr, division manager for Data and Security Administration & Internal Systems in Fresno County, Calif. Carr said the problem stems from a lack of standards or basic principles that agencies can look to. "The problem is our window is going. The problem is when the window goes, we'll never get this resolved and we'll be back to where we were prior to 9-11."

Carr said politics have gotten in the way of the adoption of any standards. "Industry doesn't let politics regulate it and politicians don't really want to regulate it. If the government says the best VPN is supplied

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor