NEWS

Congress Gets Report Card on Homeland-Security Information Sharing

By Matthew Harwood

The federal government's ability to share information and intelligence with its state, local, and tribal partners was roundly criticized today before a subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Witnesses from state and local law enforcement agencies told the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment that information sharing has been hampered by vague intelligence products; lengthy national security clearance investigations; the large amount of national information systems that state, local, and tribal analysts have to monitor daily; and a lack of federal funding to sustain already established fusion centers.

"Fully 50 percent of survey respondents described the intelligence products they receive from federal agencies as 'unhelpful,'" Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) said in his prepared remarks posted online, referring to results from a recent National Governor's Association's survey of state and local homeland security advisors.

He also noted that 53 percent of respondents also said the intelligence products they receive are "not specific enough to direct operations in the communities they serve."

Leroy D. Baca, sheriff of Los Angeles County, gave voice to the survey's results during his opening statement and said intelligence products from the federal government routinely keep relevant information from the cop on the beat, resulting in a lack of situational awareness.

"The deputy or officer does need the tactic, procedure, method, or resource being reported on to ensure he or she recognizes the precursors of an attack when encountered on the streets," he said. Otherwise, cops in the field will not report important information they discover to the appropriate authorities, including state and regional fusion centers, because they do not have the proper context. When this occurs, a precursor to a possible attack can be missed, he warned.

Another barrier to intelligence sharing lawmakers heard about was timely national security clearances for state and local officials working at fusion centers. Many deputies, officers, and analysts, according to Baca, wait a year to receive their Top Secret clearance. This, however, creates a disincentive for state and local agencies to add or replace staff at fusion centers, and, according to Baca, "has resulted in a net loss of personnel assigned to [Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center]." He advocates for security clearances to be issued within three to six months.

Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, agreed with Baca's assessment and told lawmakers the federal government has to streamline and expedite the security clearance process.

Representing the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit (LEIU), Russel M. Porter, director of Iowa's state fusion center, told the subcommittee many of his members "decry the multitude of systems that local and state officials must access and use to stay informed."

Members complain that their shops are reaching information overload and that the systems are tiresome to manage. One member e-mailed Porter to tell him he has to change almost 30 passwords each quarter because state and local officials don't have a single place to go to find the information they need.

And while DHS' Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis Charles Allen told the subcommittee that his agency is committed to giving fusion centers the resources they need to conduct their work, both Baca and Porter said fusion centers don't have the funds needed to sustain themselves.

Porter noted that while the President's National Strategy for Information Sharing asserts fusion centers are a "national priority," DHS will only provide grant money to hire and retrain intelligence analysts for three years to states and localities if they agreed to pay 100 percent of the analysts' costs after three years. Fusion center leaders fear that if they cannot find alternative sources of funding, they won't be able to increase or retrain staff.

One fusion center chief told Porter that "our local agencies who have staff in the [fusion center] have told us that if they are held to the requirement of promising to sustain staff beyond the 2008 grant period in order to accept funding then they will opt out."

Allen defended DHS' efforts to increase information sharing across all levels of government nationwide. He told lawmakers that his office has deployed 25 intelligence officers to 23 fusion centers and hopes to have 35 intelligence officers in place by the end of this year.

DHS also provides fusion centers access to its Homeland Secure Data Network (HSDN) where state and local officials can read classified threat information and access NCTC Online, a classified portal with the latest terrorist-related information at the Secret level. Allen said 24 fusion centers currently have access to HSDN and added that DHS is working toward a total of 40 by year's end.

Another way for state and local officials to access DHS intelligence is through the Homeland Security Information Network's Intelligence Portal (HSIN-Intelligence), which provides 8,000 members with unclassified intelligence products, as well as through the Homeland Security State and Local Intelligence Community (HS SLIC). Through the HSIN, members of HS SLIC talk weekly during For Official Use-Only level threat teleconferences and bi-weekly during Secret-level secure video teleconferences.

Allen said DHS intelligence-sharing efforts have progressed well considering that before 9-11 the intelligence community's interaction with state and local officials virtually did not exist.

Nevertheless, Chairman Thompson said DHS intelligence sharing with state and local partners must get better, stressing its vital role to the department's relevance.

"An intelligence shop that serves the needs of its state and local customers well can be the 'glue' that will hold the Department of the Homeland Security together," he said.

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