GAO urges coordination of homeland security

In testimony last month before the House Government Reform Committee, Patricia A. Dalton, director of strategic issues at the General Accounting Office, exhorted Congress to improve relations among federal, state and local governments to better protect the nation against terrorist attacks.

Dalton said previous federal programs to combat terrorism lacked two important features: measurable performance standards and a clarification of state and local government roles in responding to a terrorist attack.

Dalton unveiled a three-fold plan for improving national security and cooperation by the levels of government:

  • Define and clarify the roles of federal, state and local governments. Dalton said GAO found that more than 40 federal agencies take part in the fight against terrorism. Some of these efforts have resulted in confusion, duplicate programs and a lack of accountability.

    For example, at least 15 federal agencies have jurisdiction at U.S. seaports, primarily the Coast Guard, Customs Service, and Immigration and Naturalization Service, Dalton said. State and local law enforcement agencies are also responsible for port security.

    Opportunities abound for improved give-and-take, Dalton said. The federal government might offer state and local governments help in areas such as risk management and intelligence sharing. Likewise, state and local governments can share their knowledge of local vulnerabilities and resources, she said.

  • Establish goals and performance measures to guide the nation's preparedness efforts. Congress has long recognized the need to assess the results of federal programs, Dalton said. But so far, no standards have been set for national security preparedness.

  • Choose carefully the tools to set the national strategy on track. Many state and local governments face declining revenues and increased security costs, she said. Policy tools such as grants, regulations, tax incentives and intergovernmental partnerships ultimately could help the government better target areas of high risk, promote shared responsibilities and track progress.

Challenges ahead

"Since the attacks of Sept. 11, we have seen the nation unite and better coordinate preparedness efforts among federal, state and local agencies," Dalton said in her testimony, which was published in a GAO report, Combating Terrorism: Enhancing Partnerships Through a National Preparedness Strategy. The challenge now is to build on this response and sustain it to strengthen defenses against terrorism, she said.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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