EDITOR'S DESK: Penny-pinching still proves costly at DHS

Wyatt Kash, Editorial Director

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents weren't alone last week in having their computer systems bedeviled by virus attacks. Systems administrators across the country were scrambling to counter the digital infection de jour'the Zotob worm'that exploited a security hole in Microsoft Windows' Plug and Play code.

What exactly plagued CBP's database system is still unclear. But for customs agents at airports from New York to San Francisco, it meant processing thousands of arriving passengers the old-fashioned way'by hand. In Miami, where more than 4,000 people waited up to five hours to clear immigration, the shutdown was a frustrating reminder of the dilemma Homeland Security officials face.

That dilemma is how to balance the fight against terrorism with the need to serve millions of travelers and commercial enterprises, whose goods flow into and out of the country each year.

Secretary Michael Chertoff made it clear in his plan for reorganizing DHS that technology is a strategic pillar of the new risk-oriented, results-focused approach.

But the department is still paying the price for the administration's decision to cut $300 million in collective IT spending from the department's first-year operating budget. Budget planners banked on expected savings from merging DHS agencies'but well before officials could even begin combining systems. That decision flew in the face of how large private-sector mergers work: Typically, IT spending rises to speed integration before any savings materialize.

DHS' new Infrastructure Transformation Program, aimed at streamlining IT acquisition and reforming systems management, is a welcome tonic. But as Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Bennie Thompson, among others, observe in this issue's special report, a key question remains: How can DHS be expected to adequately protect and serve the nation, and address privacy concerns, when its own IT systems remain financially shortchanged and vulnerable to cyberattacks?

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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