Homeland Security data-sharing systems criticized

The U.S. homeland security information-sharing structure was criticized Thursday by witnesses at a House subcommittee hearing -- with the failure to integrate existing communications systems being singled out as a major culprit.

Testimony before the Homeland Security Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee primarily focused on the Regional Information Sharing Systems, known as RISS, and the Homeland Security Information Network, or HSIN. The latter is a computer-based counter-terrorism system designed to connect all 50 states.

"I think we'd be living in a dream world if we believed that the HSIN is anywhere near where it needs to be," declared full committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

Thompson said HSIN has been found to duplicate other information-sharing systems that can perform the same job for half the cost. He added that it does not integrate well with other systems and said the Homeland Security Department has not "clearly defined the system's purpose."

The department rushed to deploy HSIN following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to David Powner, director of information technology management issues for the Government Accountability Office. Powner said GAO has found that in developing HSIN, the department did not adequately account for key initiatives associated with RISS.

RISS is a national program of regionally oriented services designed to enhance the communication and coordination of federal, state and local agencies in fighting crime. That program has been in operation for about 25 years, well before HSIN was implemented.

Due to problems in integrating HSIN with the previously existing structure, Powner said HSIN "may be duplicating state and local capabilities" while running the risk that "effective information-sharing is not occurring."

Brian Tomblin, an official of the Tennessee Army National Guard's homeland security office, said "the problems and frustrations currently experienced with HSIN are all directly related to a lack of communication and clear guidance between [the U.S. Homeland Security Department] and state partners."

Wayne Parent, deputy director of operations coordination at Homeland Security, responded: "Over the past nine months, numerous improvements and enhancements to HSIN have been made, and I believe it has the potential [to] become the information-sharing and situational awareness tool it was envisioned to be. ... Work needs to continue to ensure there is robust connectively and interoperability with all [Homeland Security Department] partners."

William Harris of the Delaware State Police characterized RISS as the best information-sharing resource available. And Donald Kennedy, executive director of the New England State Police Information Network -- one of the six RISS centers -- noted its attributes in fighting crime.

"The federal government should provide the funding needed to leverage existing information-sharing systems and expand intelligence-sharing by executing interoperability between operating systems at the local, state, regional, federal and tribal levels," he said. "... Users should be able to access all pertinent information from disparate systems with a single sign-on, based on the user's classification level and need to know."

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