Agencies must undergo 'cultural change' to share data

Many federal agencies must undergo a "cultural change" to create the types of information-sharing networks that are needed to defend the nation against terrorist attacks, a State Department technology expert said Tuesday.

"Our job has not always been to share information, and sometimes it's very difficult for us to get into that culture," June Daniels, a senior systems analyst with the State Department's Foreign Affairs Systems Integration Office, said during a homeland security forum at the Library of Congress.

Daniels said agencies "don't like to share information with each other," in part because of traditional mandates prohibiting the interagency exchange of sensitive information. She noted that State Department officials, for example, typically cannot access law enforcement databases that contain critical information about non-immigrant visa applicants.

She added that the FBI, the Customs Service, and other law enforcement agencies often cannot review each other's databases. "There are good reasons for protecting those databases, but as a result, we just don't share information very well," she said.

But even before the Sept. 11 attacks, the State Department had begun finding ways to break down some of those traditional barriers through a pilot project that would enable the overseas offices of nine federal agencies to share data through a common, interoperable information technology platform.

Daniels said the Overseas Presence Interagency Collaboration/Knowledge Management System, which is scheduled to be implemented in May, was developed in response to the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The system is being designed to provide the various overseas federal posts with interoperable e-mail, interagency directories, real-time video conferencing and several other shared capabilities.

Working together to develop that common system proved to be a daunting task for the participating agencies, which include the departments of State, Justice, Transportation, Defense and Commerce.

"We had our own systems," Daniels said. "We didn't have a common infrastructure. It was very difficult for us to exchange information."

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who delivered the keynote address at Tuesday's forum, said new laws must be enacted to help all federal agencies share critical homeland security information on a nationwide scale.

"One of the difficulties right now is that nothing can be implemented, because it's such a hodgepodge of turf wars and jurisdictional fights between different agencies," Davis said. "It's a struggle, because we're up against entrenched bureaucracies."

Davis, who chairs the Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy, is sponsoring legislation to provide federal agencies with a "framework" for coordinating their information systems and protecting the nation's critical infrastructures.

The Federal Information Security Management Act, H.R. 3844, would require federal agencies to implement "best practices" to protect their information systems. Davis also is working with Rep. James Moran, D-Va., and Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, on legislation to make it easier for the private sector to help federal agencies coordinate their information systems while protecting critical data.

"With the [homeland security] money going out the door now, we need to make sure these systems are out there talking to each other," Davis said. "I don't think we can afford to delay enactment of this kind of legislation."