NEW YORK – State and local officials are confident the federal government will finally put its money where its mouth is when it comes to sharing homeland security intelligence on potential threats and terror alerts.
But they aren't sitting around waiting for the new Homeland Security Department to get up and running despite its many promises of coordination.
The homeland security bill signed by President Bush last month requires the president to establish ways for sharing threat information, both classified and unclassified, with state and local governments and agencies. The measure also allows more sharing of grand jury information and the content of electronic intercepts with state and local officials.
"It opens up the doors as far as some of the federal statutes out there," said Dalen Harris, legislative associate at the National Association of Counties. "As far as sensitive information that may be beneficial to local officials in the event of a terrorist attack, they weren't getting that information before."
"We regrettably have discovered there were early warnings of these events" surrounding Sept. 11, said Bruce Aitken, president of the Washington-based Homeland Security Industries Association, which consists of 60 companies, such as Lockheed Martin, that contribute technology and services to homeland security efforts. The bill makes it "very clear there will be enhanced information sharing and that will include state and local groups."
But because the federal government has been slow to respond to information requests from local law enforcement in the past, some state and local officials say they don't expect significant changes until the new department is done organizing, a process that could take a year.
In the meantime, the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Chief Information Officers -- made up of state technology experts -- are trying to improve their information-gathering. This summer, the two groups entered into a deal with the Justice Department to allow vital security-related information to move more effectively between the feds and states.
Information sent out by Washington on both cyber and physical threats will be coordinated by NASCIO through what's called an Interstate Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which will then go to state homeland security directors.
"The goal is to ultimately create a more robust two-way sort of communications relationship. Right now, it's pretty much just push from the feds down to the state," said Chris Dixon, digital government issues coordinator for NASCIO. "It's kind of like a vicious cycle … we're trying to break that cycle."
Dixon added, "It's really just about relationships and a sense of trust. That's just something that just takes time -- there's no technological way around it."
Although states are making progress in increasing information traffic, they are hopeful that the homeland security bill can help further the cause.
"It's just a little too early right now. We don't know what type of information we'll be privy to," Harris said. "We know it's not going to be highly sensitive information but we want it to be some information where [National Association of Counties] members will really be able to use it effectively."
However, there is no guarantee about the quality of the information that will be shared with state and local officials. President Bush will determine what information gets beyond the White House.
"We're hopeful that they'll develop that with state and local input because the sort of mantra for this whole thing has been 'the right information in the right hands at the right time,'" said Thom Rubel, program director for state information technology at NGA.
If anything, the homeland security bill should force the federal government to focus on this issue as much as states have been, and to make sure localities are included in the process, Rubel said.
"This has really been a major priority for mayors, police chiefs and local law enforcement since 9-11," said U.S. Conference of Mayors spokesman Andrew Soloman. "It's going to be an important step forward."