Steve Cooper | DHS' first CIO joined government after attacks

Cooper was first CIO of the Homeland Security Department

If you look at all the money available, there is enough ... but there are too many factions, and too many agencies are protecting their turf.' Steve Cooper

Zaid Hamid

The American journey took a sharp turn on 9/11. For Steve Cooper, the first CIO of the Homeland Security Department, that journey began with an unexpected sea cruise.

'I was a participant in an executive forum on a cruise ship in New York harbor,' Cooper reminisced in a recent interview. 'We weren't aware that anything was going on. Then a lot of cell phones went off, with relatives asking if we were OK.'

The nonplussed passengers on the British-flagged ship started watching the live events on BBC TV, which carried an inset of the Cable News Network's live coverage.

'As we watched, people were confused,' Cooper continued. 'We didn't understand that it was a live broadcast. [The passengers] realized that when the second plane crashed into the second tower. Then people got concerned.'

A Coast Guard officer boarded the ship shortly after that and ordered it out to sea. Cooper and the other passengers landed unexpectedly in Boston a day later. He made his way back by car to upstate New York, where he worked as the CIO of Corning Inc. in Corning.

'I was pretty angry about the whole thing,' Cooper said. 'I asked my wife if I could participate in America's response to terrorism, and she said, 'Go for it.''

Cooper's path to the leadership of DHS technology began with a meeting in the White House with Tom Ridge, who then led the White House homeland security office.

When Ridge began as DHS' first secretary, he brought Cooper along as CIO.

Ridge proclaimed a readiness agenda. But in the background, IT specialists scrambled to weave together the department's systems. The public counted 22 DHS agencies, new, old or reorganized, while insiders used the working figure of 29 agencies, Cooper said.

That confusion extended to the task of counting the number of IT systems within DHS, which numbered in the hundreds. In some cases, frustrated employees created their own wildcat databases.

Some agencies, such as the Coast Guard, entered DHS with complete, functioning IT networks, infrastructure and personnel. But startups like the Science and Technology Directorate had no IT assets at all.

In another critical case, Congress had decided to dismember and recombine functions of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, Border Patrol and Customs Bureau, as well as parts of the Agriculture and Transportation departments in four agencies responsible for border issues.

The reorganization created an IT and accounting tangle that many in the department compared to changing the tires on a moving car.

Cooper stepped into this imbroglio with charm and determination. Those aptitudes served him well as Congress routinely hauled senior DHS officials to committee hearings. The department faced criticism for not providing useful information to state and local law enforcement, while audit agencies savaged its IT programs.

Cooper points to achievements such as building DHS' classified and unclassified networks, as well as launching the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System.

'I think there is a lot of progress in bringing together the intelligence community in the classified space,' he added.

The homeland security push also has speeded up federal use of data-mining tools, among other achievements, Cooper said.

But he cites two major areas where more work is needed: 'One of the most important things is information sharing,' Cooper said. 'The second thing that still needs to be done is more significant deliverables in public safety interoperability. You have first responders waiting, and we are not delivering.'

In addition, federal IT leaders must continue to modernize the government's technology infrastructure, Cooper added. 'Money is not being invested in keeping the federal infrastructure up to date,' he warned.

'If you look at all the money available, there is enough money to do what needs to be done,' Cooper said. 'But there are too many factions, and too many agencies are protecting their turf.'

Cooper now stands one step away from the federal IT world in his job as CIO of the American Red Cross. He cautioned the opinions he offered for this article were his own and did not reflect those of his employer.

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