IG finds centers can't search across terrorism databases

Homeland Security Department has spent about $430 million to date developing information-sharing systems.

Despite more than $400 million spent on technology systems, domestic counterterrorism centers across the country still face significant information sharing challenges, including the inability to search across multiple databases for terrorism-related data, according to a new report from the Homeland Security Department's inspector general.

The Homeland Security Department has spent about $430 million to date developing information-sharing systems to support so-called state and local fusion centers across the country, including the Homeland Secure Data Network, the Homeland Security Information Network-Law Enforcement system, and the Homeland Security State and Local Intelligence Community of Interest system.

But fusion center personnel make limited use of the three systems, the inspector general's office concluded in the 39-page report. Instead, officials at the centers rely primarily on e-mail, telephones, and personal relationships to gather and share information, the IG wrote.

"E-mail may meet fusion centers' need for situational awareness; however, collaboration across state, local, and federal partners to 'connect the dots' to prevent and deter threats remains a challenge without effective information-sharing IT systems," the IG report said.

Fusion center personnel said they did not regularly log into the systems because data was too hard to find or was limited in content.

Officials also lack the ability to conduct a comprehensive search across multiple information technology systems and intelligence databases, which the IG described as "a major challenge."

"Currently, users must log into each system separately when searching for information," the report stated. "Personnel at several fusion centers said that finding time to access multiple systems is a challenge. These analysts said that it would be ideal to have one system that would allow the user, based on his or her access rights, to search several systems at once."

The lack of integrated databases for terrorism-related information has been cited as a problem before. For example, the inability of federal intelligence officers to easily search across IT systems was a factor in not preventing a Nigerian man from trying to blow up an airliner over Detroit last Christmas Day.

But the IG report did praise DHS for making some progress in improving information sharing in other areas, for example, by deploying intelligence and analysis (I&A) officers to fusion centers.

"Specifically, personnel from the fusion centers we contacted said that information sharing had improved, the process was effective overall, and the information received from DHS met their needs," the IG wrote.

"Fusion center personnel attributed the improvement primarily to the deployment of I&A intelligence officers to the centers. As a result of improved information sharing, fusion centers have successfully collaborated with DHS during numerous large-scale events and maintained situational awareness after attempted terrorist attacks or other incidents," the IG added.

The IG report made 10 recommendations to improve information sharing, all of which DHS officials agreed with.

For example, the report recommended that the department improve the organization and search capability of the systems, including the ability to access multiple databases. According to DHS, a next-generation upgrade of the Homeland Security Information Network will have this search capability. That system is expected to start rolling out this fiscal year.

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