DHS' major programs are in the chips

But some in Congress question support for first responders

White House adds money for border programs

Several technology programs figure to gain additional funding from the administration's fiscal 2008 budget. Here's how the White House handicapped them at the gate of this year's budget process sweepstakes:

Customs and Border Protection

SBINet: The program to deploy technology between ports of entry to foil smuggling and crime along the border is slated for an increase in spending, but not appropriations. For 2007, the first year of operation, the program received appropriations of $1.18 billion, but is expected to spend only $595 million. Actual outlays are set to increase in 2008 as the program adds staff and ramps up operations. The budget request calls for a $1 billion appropriation in 2008, which matches the expected outlays.

National Protection and Programs Directorate

U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System: The department's flagship program for processing travelers at ports of entry is slated for an increase of $146.2 million.

Transportation Security Administration

Threat assessment and credentialing: This covers TSA's threat targeting program as well as providing identifications to trusted travelers and tracking potential threats via the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, the Alien Flight Student project and other efforts. Increase in budget request over enacted 2007 funding: $89.3 million

Citizenship and Immigration Services

Technology modernization: CIS' ramshackle IT systems have been going through a slow-motion makeover in a gradual process of eliminating the transfer of paper case files among offices. Spending is split among several accounts and depends partly on the progress of a rulemaking that will raise money for the project by boosting user fees. Requested increase: $139 million.

From where he stands: DHS secretary Michael Chertoff disputed some lawmakers' contention that the DHS budget request was abandoning state and local efforts.

Rick Steele

The executive branch and key leaders in the House and Senate all are backing increased funding for the Homeland Security Department in the fiscal 2008 budget, and the coming months of hearings and votes will determine which individual programs will prevail.

The Office of Management and Budget has provided thousands of words and dozens of charts describing its proposal for how an additional $1 billion of homeland security funding should best be spent. DHS' IT budget, meanwhile, essentially stays the same, dropped by a negligible $44 million out of a $4.1 billion request.

The administration pegged its request for overall gross discretionary funding at $37.7 billion, an 8 percent increase from 2007. The request excludes Coast Guard pensions and other funds, which would boost total DHS spending to $46.4 billion.

DHS technology outlays come both in the form of individual projects with an especially high IT content, and in overall department spending that boosts tech both directly and via shared projects such as networks as well as human resources and accounting systems.

Border programs figured high on the list of favored projects (see chart), with the flagship SBINet and U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology projects slated for special attention.

Some other programs appeared to languish or evaporate in the draft budget proposal.

Close to home?

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, criticized the budget in a statement backing restoration of grant funds for first responders.

'The president is further proposing elimination of funding for the Metropolitan Medical Response System, which ensures state medical systems are prepared to handle a significant disaster, including an act of bioterror,' Lieberman said.

House Homeland Security Committee chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) echoed Lieberman's criticisms in a hearing with Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff. Citing the state and local grant program cuts, Thompson said in a statement that, 'I am concerned that this proposed budget is passing the buck of homeland security to state and local agencies.'

Thompson directed his staff to compile a report on gaps in DHS spending that highlighted 'budget shortfalls' in areas such as first-responder grants, development of registered traveler programs, IT research and cybersecurity.

Chertoff's budget analysis in effect contradicted the Democratic lawmakers' position that total state and local grant funding had withered.

Chertoff's testimony highlighted the $1 billion newly allocated for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Public Safety Interoperability grant program.

He also pointed to increases in dozens of other IT projects, some in the very arenas that the Democrats said had been reduced. Both interpretations were factually correct but relied on different interpretations of the data.

Apart from the partisan clamor, the budget documents do show trends toward the higher spending that characterizes major integration programs and an emphasis on commercial technology rather than research tools, analysts said.

James Carafano, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, noted that the several large system integration programs in the department likely would experience substantial initial expenditures before delivering services.

'When you are moving from the conceptual stage to the integration stage, as in the case of SBINet and other major systems integration projects, about 20 percent of the cost is at the front end,' Carafano said.

Ray Bjorklund, vice president for market intelligence and chief knowledge officer of Federal Sources Inc., identified another subtle shift in the DHS technology spending outlook: one toward the use of more mature, off-the-shelf systems.

Bjorklund cited projects such as the two flagship border programs as well as the Citizenship and Immigration Services IT reforms, credentialing and screening activities as examples of tech programs that will rely on commercial products.

'Chertoff has stated that he favors risk-based management as a tool for making technology decisions,' Bjorklund said. 'Saying that the department increasingly is favoring the use of commercial software and technologies is not saying that those projects will be easy. Look at the example of the FBI's [failed] Virtual Case File project. These are not nontrivial projects.'

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