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DHS muddles federal, state and local information sharing, critics say.

The federal bureaucracy can be a significant hurdle to interoperable information sharing and emergency communications among federal, state and local governments, say observers of recent events in Washington.

Most recently, during July and early August, the Homeland Security Department attempted to cancel a digital interoperable communications tool intended largely for state and local emergency first responders, according to sources close to the initiative. DHS issued an order in mid-July to stop work on Disaster Management Interoperability Services, a primarily DHS-funded, 8-year-old project that the Office of Management and Budget designated in 2002 as one of 24 e-government initiatives. OMB has since pressured DHS to fully fund the project through December 2006, but its future thereafter remains uncertain, says an industry source granted anonymity.

Scott Charbo, DHS' acting undersecretary for management and chief information officer, wanted to combine Disaster Management with another project run by DHS headquarters called the Homeland Security Information Network, sources say. DHS spokesman Larry Orluskie said in late July that the department was conducting an internal review of programs with an eye to eliminating redundancy.

About 60,000 federal, state and local users have registered to use Disaster Management, and it was deployed to coordinate emergency assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Navy recently installed the system at its southeastern U.S. bases inside the hurricane zone to coordinate with local governments. A California official familiar with the project praised it as a rare success and derided federal infighting for endangering it. "I don't think those people could agree on what pizza to get," the official says.

The program's development hasn't been "always as smooth as I would like," says Chip Hines, acting director of DHS' office for interoperability and compatibility. But, he adds, any changes in Disaster Management "would be long-term ones." DHS issued a stop work order due to a funding glitch, since repaired, Hines says.

Disaster Management supporters say it offers a unique field incident management data interoperability service that users can't get with the Homeland Security Information Network. That project was the subject of a scathing June 2006 inspector general report (OIG-06-38).

HSIN, designed to be DHS' primary Internet-enabled information-sharing mechanism with state and local governments, was built on an accelerated schedule leading to ad hoc changes done without notification. "Users are confused and frustrated, without clear guidance on HSIN's role or how to use the system to share information effectively," the report says.

The network began life in 2002 as a grass-roots effort called the Joint Regional Information Exchange System, supported primarily by the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center, the New York City Police Department, and the Defense Intelligence Agency. In May 2005, the JRIES executive board ended its support of the Homeland Security Information Network, stating in a letter that DHS "has 'hijacked' the system and federalized a successful, cooperative, federal, state and local project."

"There was a whole bunch of stuff that DHS was not listening to us about," says Ed Manavian, former executive board chairman and until February, head of California's Criminal Intelligence Bureau. "You can't develop a system from Washington D.C.," adds the now retired official, who blames federal pressure for ending his state government career.

One reason registered HSIN users rarely log on to the system is a lack of valuable content, according to the inspector general report. Police chiefs from major U.S. cities, including Washington and Los Angeles, recently sent a letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff complaining about the quality of federal information-sharing efforts. A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department for the District of Columbia had no immediate comment on what transpired during a July meeting between police Chief Charles Ramsey and Chertoff.

HSIN is primarily communication flowing outward, but not inward to DHS, say some state users. As a result, users often rely on their own networks to keep the data flowing locally. California, for example, a participant in the original JRIES network, relies on a homegrown variation as its primary information-sharing mechanism for suspicious activity. California officials transfer HSIN content onto their own network "at least once a day," says Chris Bertelli, deputy director for the California Office of Homeland Security.

There's information sharing with the federal government-namely the FBI-through California's four regional terrorism threat assessment sharing centers, but two-way data communication with DHS is still under development, Bertelli adds.

Ensuring data interoperability among networks, rather than a single network for all users under all circumstances, is the real key to information sharing, says Frank Pawlowski, a major with the Pennsylvania State Police and a JRIES board member who supported severing ties with HSIN. At the same time, Pawlowski cautions against too much freedom of information.

"A totally open architecture-this IT vision that you hear about, that at your fingertips you'll be able to learn and discover about all the terrorism investigations going on out there-well, that's ridiculous," he says. A small-town sheriff doesn't ordinarily need to know all the particulars of a terrorism investigation in Manhattan, he adds. That sheriff should get that information when needed, but only then. Efforts such as HSIN didn't build in safeguards, Pawlowski says. Lack of trust in the system's ability to protect information hampers its use, according to the DHS inspector general.

Pawlowski says the overall information-sharing picture has nonetheless improved dramatically since Sept. 11, particularly between local law enforcement and the FBI. State troopers, for example, are much more likely to catch terrorism suspects thanks to linkages to the FBI terrorism watch list, he adds.

But other officials say the flood of federal money has managed to perpetuate existing data-sharing cleavages. For example, one Florida county law enforcement official says the only way county police departments can connect with city databases in the state is to go through the local FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force center. The cities "got their little grant writers out, wrote a bunch of shit, and they got their own federal funds to create their own networks. So now they have their own local system, [with] which we are not interoperable" the official says.

Certainly, something must change, former California official Manavian says. "From a state and local perspective, their feeling is that if the feds aren't going to do it, we have to do it ourselves."

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