WASHINGTON – Poor information-sharing both inside and outside government is threatening homeland security, congressional investigators said Tuesday.
Additionally, U.S. Comptroller General David Walker said federal agencies — including the Homeland Security and Defense departments — may need to declassify some security intelligence to break down information roadblocks to state and local authorities.
"Many aspects of homeland security information sharing remain ineffective and fragmented," said a report released by the Government Accountability Office (search), the investigative arm of Congress.
Although officials have begun paying more attention to information obstructions, investigators designated the issue as a "government-wide high-risk area" because it "still faces significant challenges," the report said.
The dearth of security information sharing was one of four new problem areas added to a list of 25 high-risk government programs identified by the GAO in its biennial report.
Lawmakers said aggressive oversight and reforms needed to be made, respectively, in Congress and by the Bush administration.
Specifically, the report noted, information from fingerprint databases was shared between the Homeland Security and Justice departments at a "slow pace" in 2004. It also found that an initial information-sharing plan by the Homeland Security Department (search) has yet to be accessed by all 34 networks that the GAO says need to be included.
"We haven't achieved the homeland security that the law requires us to achieve," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (search), the top Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees the Homeland Security Department. "And therefore, in this sense, the name 'high risk list' takes on special, urgent meaning, more than the normal risk of financial failure or waste or fraud or abuse. The risk here is to the personal security of the American people at home."
Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse disputed the findings, pointing to daily DHS bulletins that alert federal, state, local and private-sector officials of possible security threats. He also noted a fingerprint information database, shared with the FBI and U.S. Border Patrol, that had led to the arrest of more than 8,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records as of late last year.
"We disagree with the assessment that we have made no significant progress in information sharing," Roehrkasse said, "especially since we have created an information-sharing capacity at the federal level that never existed" before the agency was formed in 2003.
Speaking to reporters after presenting the report to House and Senate lawmakers, Walker said agencies may need to reconsider classifying some intelligence to ensure that vital security information reaches all levels of responders.
"There's a trade-off between your privacy and security, and we need, I think, to rethink a lot of the classification rules in light of the changed environment," Walker said.
The GAO also identified eight Defense Department programs as high-risk, including two new to the list. It found widespread departmental delays in completing security clearance checks and failures in management responsibility and control over business activities.
In another aspect of the report, which is released at the start of the new congressional session, investigators removed the Education Department's student aid programs from the unfavorable list, saying the agency has "demonstrated a strong commitment to addressing risks." The Federal Student Aid office is better at managing its loans, its data and its people, the GAO said.
The timing created something of a mixed message. Just one day earlier, the GAO criticized the same student aid office for poor oversight of a program in which colleges serve as lenders.