Senate eyes DHS systems management shake-up

Senate eyes DHS systems management shake-up

The Senate today laid the groundwork for a potential reorganization of the Homeland Security Department's IT operations as part of a larger reshuffling of the department.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) began discussing possible changes at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The chairwoman and ranking minority member of the committee appeared united in their desire to realign the department.

'Some of the recommendations we've heard dealt with giving more authority to the CIO to be able to manage the information systems across the department and have the various agency CIOs report to him, and I personally think that is a good idea,' Collins said after the hearing.

One of the most intensively discussed topics was the prospect of merging the Border and Transportation Security Directorate's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency with its Customs and Border Protection arm. Several witnesses backed the proposal.

Collins asked DHS inspector general Richard L. Skinner to prepare a report on the prospects for merging the two agencies and present it to the committee in about three months. Skinner said he would work with the committee's staff to set the study's scope and milestones for completing the report.

Richard Falkenrath, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and an architect of the administration's first strategic plan for homeland security, suggested another possible merger. He told the committee that the administrative division between CBP and the Transportation Security Administration creates needless duplication. For example, TSA's Office of National Risk Assessment largely overlaps the functions of CBP's National Targeting Center, he said. Falkenrath recommended the agencies' functions be merged.

Both of the risk assessment centers use sophisticated systems to pinpoint potential dangers related to people and cargo entering the country.

More broadly, Skinner said, 'the department has much to do before it can be called a cohesive, comprehensive and effective organization.' His written testimony detailed several IT shortcomings, including problems with the merger of the FBI and DHS fingerprint systems and troubles associated with systems created to identify travelers attempting to use lost or stolen passports to enter the country.

DHS faces additional scrutiny from the IG's office:

  • A review of the security of the department's networks and databases, including the Homeland Security Digital Network

  • A close look at the systems the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency uses to process foreigners' requests for immigration status changes, which the department itself has described as outdated and uncoordinated [see GCN story]

  • The annual report on the department's compliance with the Federal Information Systems Management Act, which will include a review of various aspects of DHS' systems security.

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