Ridge: Centralized tech spending key to homeland security

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said on Thursday that his agency will centrally control all information technology spending in its fiscal 2005 budget in order to guarantee that new computer systems deliver the right intelligence to the right people in a timely manner.

The new department, comprised of nearly 180,000 employees from 22 agencies that already existed, including customs and immigration entities and the Transportation Security Administration, plans to spend $829 million on upgrades to information analysis and computer security in 2004.

Ridge told a group of about 300 IT contractors in Alexandria, Va., Thursday morning that information compatibility is crucial in the fight against terrorism. "We need access to quality information that is actionable," he said. "We will never be able to address our vulnerabilities with disparate computer systems."

Ridge said Homeland Security is developing an IT roadmap to create a centralized data system accessible by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The plan will be complete in the fall, he said and it will follow these five principles: All levels of government must be treated as one; information must be captured once at the source; all information must be accurate; systems will be secure and constantly updated; and civil liberties will be respected.

The department has the daunting task of safeguarding all of America's entry points from terrorist incursion. That not only includes screening millions of travelers at airports and borders but also protecting U.S. ports, which move millions of presently unguarded cargo containers every year.

Most law enforcement databases are not currently integrated. The failure of federal, state and local agencies to share information was widely recognized as a key culprit in the failure to detect the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist plots.

Ridge is keenly aware of the problem and is therefore centralizing all IT spending at the headquarters level starting in the department's 2005 budget. "We understand how important it is to knock down barriers to information sharing," he said. "We can't build a system if units within the department are free to go out and contract on their own."

Central to the system is the new Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which blends intelligence from the CIA, FBI, Defense Department and Homeland Security's Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Getting that information to local "first responders" to emergencies in time is crucial to success, Ridge said.

"You can only secure the homeland if the hometown is secure," he said.