DHS official defends effort to promote radio interoperability

A top Homeland Security Department official said his agency was making "huge progress" in improving its performance despite problems on some crucial fronts, such as the long-delayed effort to develop interoperable radios for first responders.

"I don't want to paint things in [rose] colored glasses, but we are making substantial progress," Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Michael Jackson told the House Homeland Security Committee.

But he promptly came under criticism from panel members for the failure of his agency to finalize a memorandum of understanding with the Commerce Department on how to spend the $1 billion approved by Congress two years ago for promoting interoperability -- a key recommendation of the 2004 report issued by the 9/11 Commission.

"You still haven't produced the MOU," said House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., noting that the deadline set by Congress was Sept. 30. Jackson said he hoped to sign off on the agreement soon, perhaps as early as next week.

"We are joined at the hip with our colleagues at Commerce," he assured Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee Chairwoman Jane Harman, D-Calif, when she questioned him on the matter.

In an interview, Jackson indicated that about 75 cities across the country were in the running to receive grants under the program and that the money was expected to start flowing by the end of the year. Jackson also took some heat for a recent Office of Personnel Management survey finding that department employees had the lowest rate of job satisfaction of any federal agency.

"This is really an indictment and you ought to take it seriously," said Thompson. Jackson said agency officials had formed a task force to boost morale by, among other things, seeking to give workers a sense of mission. "Here's the punch line. It's about protecting the homeland against attack," he said.

He also sought to downplay a finding in a recent Government Accountability Office report that the department was still five to seven years away from jelling as a cohesive agency. He said agency officials were "relentlessly focused on transforming" their sprawling, 208,000-employee department into an "integrated" unit.

On another major issue, Jackson told the committee that by the end of next year the department expected to complete 370 miles of the 700-mile fence authorized to be built along the Mexican border by Congress last year. He explained that much of the fence would be "virtual," consisting of light and sensor systems for detecting border crossings and ground-based radar networks enabling officials to monitor the area visually.

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