Building a sharing environment
ISE ramps up despite potential budget gaps
A fundamental support for information sharing in the U.S. will be the Information Sharing Environment (ISE), whose construction was mandated by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. It is meant primarily to provide ways of sharing information across five communities involved in anti-terrorism efforts: homeland security, law enforcement, defense, foreign affairs and intelligence.
However, ISE could also have a broader impact in government because part of its job is to help develop standards and practices for sharing information. Plus, the engine on which ISE operates is the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM), which was developed by the Justice Department for law enforcement data sharing but is also now used for nonterrorism information exchange — for example, between federal health information systems and across all the Homeland Security Department agencies.
ISE also hosts the Classified Information Sharing and Safeguarding Office, which was set up under Executive Order 13587 “to provide expert, full-time, sustained focus on responsible sharing and safeguarding of classified information on computer networks.”
Getting ISE started in 2006 was a battle, said Thomas McNamara, former ISE program manager, due to “pervasive resistance to change” from the communities it was supposed to serve. Although a good foundation had been built by 2009, he said a fully functioning ISE was still a “desideratum.”
In October 2011, however, McNamara told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee: “I am delighted to observe two years later that the ISE has gone well beyond that point.... Concepts and programs that were hard-fought struggles in those first years are accepted as conventional wisdom now.”
That doesn’t mean ISE is up and running. The Government Accountability Office noted in a July 2011 report that, although ISE and its partner agencies had made progress on implementing a number of goals and activities and were working to establish an end-state vision of what ISE would be, those actions had not yet resulted in a fully functioning ISE.
Among other things, GAO also noted that the ISE program manager and the various agencies involved had not yet identified the incremental costs necessary to implement ISE, which would limit the extent to which decision-makers could plan for and prioritize future investments.
A significant drag on fully implementing ISE could be lack of money. Kshemendra Paul, ISE’s current program manager, said in the foreword to ISE’s 2011 annual report to Congress that the organization’s partners at public safety organizations face “significant challenges with fiscal constraints forcing drastic budget cuts.”
In an interview with the Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier this year, Paul called budgeting headwinds “far and away” the most significant issue facing ISE partners this year. He also noted, however, that the pressure could pose an opportunity for greater sharing because it could help agencies in their hunt for budget cuts.
There are some positives. A revised submission for a Unified Modeling Language profile for NIEM was delivered to the Object Management Group on Feb. 20, which means that users will soon have a standard for modeling NIEM artifacts. That will make it much easier for developers to create NIEM-based information exchanges — including those for ISE — using object-oriented tools.
Nevertheless, there’s still a long way to go to get to the “beginning of the end” of ISE development, McNamara told the Senate committee.
“I estimate that today we are at the halfway point,” he said. “I expect that we need less than five more years to reach the goal we set [in 2006].”