By Spencer S. Hsu and Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 18, 2008
The Homeland Security Department spent more than $90 million to create a network for sharing sensitive anti-terrorism information with state and local governments that it has decided to replace, according to an internal department document.
The decision was made late last year but was not announced. It was outlined in an Oct. 27 memorandum that listed the network's flaws and asserted that DHS's counterterrorism, immigration enforcement and disaster management missions were hampered by the proliferation of more than 100 Web "portals" that provide poorly coordinated information.
"Most are duplicative in capabilities" and lack innovation, noted the memo by DHS Undersecretary for Management Paul A. Schneider. He said that as a result, the department "will replace" the current system, known as the Homeland Security Information Network.
The decision underscores recurring criticism about the department's effectiveness at meeting the core need to better share information with government and private partners involved in counterterrorism efforts five years after it was formed, according to lawmakers and independent experts. The department also has repeatedly rushed crucial technology initiatives, leading to delays and millions of dollars in additional costs.
The network is the department's primary communications application for sensitive but unclassified information. It is a Web-based system designed to be used for chat and instant messaging, as well as a conduit for suspicious activity reports and analysis of terrorist threats.
But the department's information-sharing efforts, meant to fulfill a key security priority since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have faltered from the beginning. Two years ago, the Government Accountability Office listed the network as a "high-risk area."
The GAO gave the program the same designation last year. Among the key problems, according to an April 2007 review: The department rushed to deploy the system without consulting users.
Other government agencies have struggled with technology initiatives. Congressional auditors in 2006 said that the FBI had spent nearly $600 million over five years without successfully developing a new case-management system.
Developed by the Defense Intelligence Agency and transferred to DHS in 2003, the information network has been criticized by law enforcement users for being difficult to use, providing little added value, and duplicating existing law enforcement networks operated by the Justice Department. A June 2006 report by the department's inspector general found that only 2 to 6 percent of authorized users had signed on to the Web-based network daily during the previous December.
But DHS officials have said publicly that the system was rapidly improving. That prompted Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee and its intelligence subcommittee to express anger in a letter to Schneider yesterday that they were not told in advance of the department's plan.
They said that on Oct. 26, a day before Schneider's memo was dated, DHS officials told lawmakers that the department had made "significant progress" in upgrading the network.
"It is unacceptable that the Department would brief the Congress on the status of the program on one day and dramatically alter that program the next," wrote Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Reps. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) , Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.).
The lawmakers gave Schneider until Feb. 14 to answer 18 questions about the possible impact on the system and its users, its projected cost savings, which contractors are involved, and whether DHS has consulted with states and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is in charge of creating a nationwide information-sharing environment.
In his memo, Schneider ordered all DHS agency heads to "stop any new development or enhancements" to existing Web portal systems unless approved by DHS leadership.
DHS declined a request to interview Schneider, but department spokesman Russ Knocke said the network is being upgraded, not replaced.
"We're not departing from or discontinuing" the network, he said in an e-mail reply to questions. "Those allegations could not be more false. We'll be upgrading our systems over the next year, the same way that Microsoft puts out a new software version each year." Knocke later said that many of the network's features "are going to be integrated into a broader, more advanced platform."
Knocke said DHS briefers told the panel in October of desired upgrades and said then that they would update the committee in January. That meeting is scheduled for next week.
The current version of the network was developed by the Navy on behalf of DHS. BAE Systems was selected as the lead vendor, Knocke said.
BAE spokesman John Measell acknowledged that they are one of several contractors, and he said the company is working on the network's infrastructure, operations and maintenance. But he said officials have not seen the Schneider memo.
The system is split into dozens of Web portals used by DHS constituents, including state and local law enforcement, emergency management, counterterrorism agencies and critical private sector industries. Classified data-sharing systems that also are part of the network are not addressed by Schneider's memo, Knocke said.
A prime concern is whether the system is less useful than other, existing federal information-sharing networks, such as Law Enforcement Online (LEO) and the Regional Information Sharing Systems (Rissnet).