Homeland Security Challenge: Make 22 Agencies Work as One

In one of the glass offices, Steven I. Cooper, special assistant to the president on information technology's place in homeland security, contemplated the new department with cautious optimism.

"Candidly, we're moving, I think, somewhat effectively and probably a little slower than all of us would prefer," Cooper said. "That's not because we're doing anything incorrect. It's because this is all new. This is a learning experience. There is no handbook that you can go to, there is no OMB circular, there is no Department of Homeland Security handbook that you can look up in the Library of Congress to say 'Hey, here is how you do this.' "

Cooper, 52, is to be named chief information officer of the new department this month, sources involved in the transition said. The position will give him a key role in deciding how information technology will be used against terrorists. It is a role that bears watching for the dozens of government technology contractors in the Washington area, from Lockheed Martin Corp. on down, that hope for a multibillion-dollar bonanza.

The industry considers Cooper to be a champion of information technology, industry executives said. "This provides the opportunity for the case study of how to do it right," said James A. Kane, president and chief executive of consulting group Federal Sources Inc.

One of the challenges in creating a department from a hodgepodge of 22 federal agencies and 170,000 employees is the information technology headache.

"It is not enough to shuffle redundant or overlapping programs under the new bureaucracy," Michael Scardaville, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, wrote in a recent report. The department "should develop and deploy an information technology infrastructure that links and fuses intelligence and law enforcement terrorism databases."

Federal agencies have a spotty record in launching big information technology projects. The Justice Department's inspector general recently chastised the FBI for its $458 million Trilogy project, a program to upgrade the agency's computer system. Trilogy probably will exceed its budget and be finished late, in 2004, the inspector general's report said.

The Homeland Security Department plans to adopt the best practices from industry, other agencies and academia to avoid such problems, Cooper said. For example, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s "adopt and go" strategy, which emphasizes fast execution once a decision is made, will be a guiding principle, he said.

The agency must merge more than two dozen payroll and human resource programs into a single operation but will not needlessly study every option for months before deciding what to do, Cooper said. "The reason that we have a Department of Homeland Security is to beef up new strategic capabilities and new operational abilities day one," he said. "We only get there if we don't spend time over analyzing every option."

Cooper, an Alexandria native, reached the Office of Homeland Security after nearly 30 years in the industry. After serving in the Navy, Cooper studied chemistry and zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. His first post-college job, though, was as a programming analyst at government contractor CACI International Inc.

Cooper later was chief information officer for Corning Inc. He held a similar position at Eli Lilly Co. He said his experience with large acquisitions at both companies will help him integrate 22 agencies into the Homeland Security Department. "I think there are some things that both of those companies did well and there were some mistakes," he said.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Cooper said, he contacted the White House to offer ideas on how information technology could be used to address the problem with "stovepipes" -- disparate federal agencies whose systems cannot communicate with one another. After several visits, director Tom Ridge asked him to join the Office of Homeland Security, Cooper said.

Representative of the agency's challenge will be monitoring the thousands of freighters that enter U.S. ports daily. The task now is handled by several agencies, including the Coast Guard, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service. That scattered approach is not always efficient or effective, Cooper said. Under the new department, the agencies will be controlled by a border and transportation security directorate, combining resources and capabilities, he said.

The department wants a "smart border" program in which cargo ships heading for U.S. ports would electronically file information detailing the contents of cargo containers, crew members' names and nationalities and what stops the ships are scheduled to make before reaching the United States. "What we would really like to do is push that border out so that the border theoretically begins when the ship is being loaded," Cooper said.

But, Cooper admitted, it may be a lengthy process. "I think parts of it could probably be done fairly quickly, meaning within months instead of years," he said. "To fully put together something like that across the world is obviously going to take a longer period of time."

In the short term that will not translate into the gold rush in information technology contracting that many in the industry have expected. There will be priorities, including border and transportation security technology, such as equipment that identifies radioactivity and software that identifies non-obvious trends in databases or protects computer infrastructure from hackers.

Some programs may be delayed or canceled to accommodate those priorities, Cooper said. "We will begin to see some small increase in new programs and new capabilities, but it will not be new, large amounts of money coming to the budget," he said. "It will be a reallocation."

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