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Homeland Security Computer Boondoggle?

From Laura Strickler and Phil Hirschkorn

The Department of Homeland Security has spent up to $71 million developing a vast, computerized information sharing system that many emergency responders across the country don't understand and don't use, according to a Government Accountability Office report obtained by CBS News. The Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) is an internet-based, password-protected system that allows local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to share information in real time as an emergency or disaster unfolds. But many officials tell CBS News they'd rather pick up the phone or be on the scene than manage emergencies from a keyboard.

The GAO blames DHS's "hasty approach" in launching the computer network. "The department faces the risk that effective information sharing is not occurring," the GAO report says, "and may be duplicating existing state and local capabilities."

When we asked Kenny Shaw, who heads emergency management for Dallas, if he is familiar with the system, he responded, "Barely." Shaw says he doesn't use the system on a daily basis and adds, "That thing never did take off like we were thinking, because we can pick up the phone and make calls." Law enforcement officials in New York City say they generally don't use the system they consider impractical, though they also say, with improvements HSIN has potential to be robust.

DHS Deputy Director of Operations Coordination Wayne Parent says emergency management officials who use the phone instead of HSIN may do so because of generational differences. Parent says, as far as participation goes, DHS operates under the philosophy of: "If you build something good, they will come." But he cautions that emergencies the size of Hurricane Katrina change the dynamics of communication. "The person-to-person system doesn't work in a Katrina – only so many people can call one person at a time," Parent says.

Government auditors say regardless of the scenario, HSIN is redundant. The GAO report to be released next Thursday finds the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security have no less than 17 terrorist information sharing systems like HSIN that in total cost more than $800 million. Last year, the Senate Homeland Security Committee sent a letter to DHS complaining that only 6% of 18,000 first responders use the network.

Parent says the number of users depends on the situation at hand. He noted, for example, that during a recent emergency management drill, 8,000 participants were logged on. And he says of the 17 terrorist information sharing systems highlighted by the GAO, HSIN is the most comprehensive.

The Department of Homeland Security's defense doesn't sit well with Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee chairman who ordered the GAO report. "Never have I heard of an initiative that has lacked such planning and management," Thompson tells CBS News. And he notes the DHS inspector general "found that police officers and first responders don't use the HSIN very often, because they don't think it contains much useful information."

The system has a fan in Philadelphia's Chief Inspector for Counter-terrorism, Joseph O'Connor. "We use it on a regular basis," O'Connor says of HSIN. "We're alerted to anything and everything around the nation that would affect the tranquility of Philadelphia," such as diverted airliner flights. And the city of brotherly love makes sure to input data about threatening notes or knives discovered on planes after passengers deplane. "It's easy to throw stones at any system. They started it, they're improving it," O'Connor says of DHS.

"I found it very useful," says David Harrison, coordinator of San Diego's homeland security office. Harrison logged onto HSIN during the July 2005 London transit bombings and when the UK disrupted a multiple plane bombings plot last August. He says the network can provide a kind of one-stop shopping for terror warnings and for raises in the national threat level. "You can never assume a terrorist event is going to be localized in one location or a single event. 9/11 proved that," Harrison says.

Lieutenant Steve Lambert of the Virginia State Police says he uses HSIN every day in his work at his intelligence fusion center in Richmond. Although he depends on the system, Lambert says he told GAO auditors, "It is duplicative; there is a lot of manual processing."

A former FEMA employee who did not want to be named says the system repeatedly crashed during computer trainings, and computer experts kept getting error messages. "Half the time during the training, they are just trying to get the damn thing to work," the former FEMA employee says, adding that computer trainers reassured FEMA staff by saying: "This won't happen during an emergency."

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