Ridge: Priorities include data sharing, cybersecurity

The Homeland Security Department's priorities for the following year will include expanded information sharing, greater infrastructure protection, improvements in cross-jurisdictional communication and the deployment of "new technologies and new tools," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Wednesday.

Ridge told a meeting of the Homeland Security Advisory Council that developing advanced communications systems to enable personnel in different agencies to talk "will make this department a 21st-century department." He also emphasized the importance of integrating border- and port-security programs, and promoting management innovations.

Ridge said he wants the Homeland Security to finalize a list of the nation's critical infrastructure this year. He also said the department will work to loosen visa restrictions on non-immigrant foreigners, particularly for business and student applicants.

Acknowledging that business transactions have been compromised and business lost because of travel restrictions imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Ridge said the department will see what changes can be made to ease restrictions. "We adjusted our polices after 9/11," he said. "Now, we'll see if we need to adjust the adjustment."

Ridge also spoke on Wednesday at Equity International's Homeland and Global Security Summit in Washington where he said the government "can do much to broaden" innovation for homeland security efforts, but "much of the work" will happen at universities, national laboratories and companies.

Those entities will help "push the scientific envelope," he said.

On President Bush's fiscal 2005 budget proposal for homeland security, Ridge said the funding "absolutely" would provide adequate dollars for its priorities and expressed confidence that Congress would "honor" the funding levels for homeland security. Bush proposed a 9.6 percent increase for security efforts in his proposal unveiled early February.

Homeland Security Deputy Secretary James Loy said the department is moving quickly to integrate and consolidate the redundant human resources, acquisition and procurement systems of the 22 agencies merged to create the department. "Nineteen payroll systems have become seven, and they're on the way to becoming one," he said.

Loy added that he has met with federal employee unions to discuss what "tweaks" can be made to the civil-service system to make it more effective. "We have an opportunity to set in place the right way to do business," he said.

The council also discussed plans for a centralized, online glossary of Homeland Security terms and acronyms, noting that several acronyms have different meanings in different departments.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, chairman of a task force on "first responders" to emergencies, said he will recommend ways to speed the movement of security aid from the federal government to the states and local first responders.

Romney said bureaucratic issues at the local level and other snafus, not problems at Homeland Security, are keeping funds from reaching first responders.

"We are prepared to write the checks," Ridge said, "but we have local procurement problems, and we want to break through the logjams."

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