Headline: Open communication key to thwarting terrorism | SummitDaily.com

Headline: Open communication key to thwarting terrorism

by jane stebbins

BRECKENRIDGE – Homeland Security begins with communications. And citizens – not the federal government – are the agency’s most vital resource, Western governors said at a Homeland Security and information technology (IT) conference in Breckenridge Monday.

Hundreds of local, state and federal officials have been meeting for the past two days to discuss Homeland Security and the best ways to coordinate information between federal and local agencies during times of terrorism. The conference ends this evening.

“The Western mind doesn’t understand fanaticism – especially when it wears a suit,” said Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who serves on the Homeland Security Council. “The threat is real.”

The federal government, under the direction of President George W. Bush, has been working since the terrorist activities of Sept. 11 to determine how to predict what kind of attack against America could be in the offing.

Speakers agreed Monday it will take a major change in the mindset of federal agencies. Agency heads must realize they need to open their files, computer databases and other information sources and share that data with the local agencies that are, ultimately, the ones who do the work at Ground Zero, whether that’s at a small-town post office where a mysterious powder has been discovered, or in the pit of rubble that was once the World Trade Centers.

Currently, Leavitt said, the time it takes for Americans to respond to a terrorist event takes too long, and there is little, if any, vertical communication, described as that from the federal to the local levels.

Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer cited the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Indian Tribal agencies – four of which work under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior – whose poor interagency communications sometimes have resulted in haphazard responses to wildfires in the West.

“Take the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),” Leavitt said. “When they come, who shows up? The state and local government who are the primary responders.”

The idea of Homeland Security, Leavitt said, is to serve as a clearinghouse for information and to allow local and state resources to work together to do what immediately needs to be done in a crisis.

“The mantra of the 21st century needs to be, “central coordination, local control,” Leavitt said. “Coordination is not the same as control. We need to build the network from the ground up. If the federal government does it, it will fail. It doesn’t own the information. The private sector does.”

Many communities – Summit County included – already have reams of information pertaining to their communities, including maps, population centers, infrastructure locations and demographics, all of which can be accessed and layered atop one another to determine, say, the best spots to place law enforcement, evacuate residents and reroute traffic, among any other myriad of possible scenarios.

Sharing that information isn’t easy, speakers agreed.

“We don’t have Type-B personalities in law enforcement,” said Sue Mencer, Colorado director of public safety. “We have Type-A personalities. We’re aggressive, territorial, we go out and get the information – and keep it.”

Not only will it take a mind shift, it will require reallocation of money.

Geringer said it might be easier than it looks. The four sectors that receive the bulk of federal funds include education, health, public safety and public assistance. By using education funds to teach students about IT, the U.S. could increase its chances to avoid an act of cyberspace terrorism.

That type of terrorism already is taking place, in the form of identity and credit card theft, program hacking and viruses. For example, experts believe money generated from credit card theft has – and continues to – fund terrorist activities.

Only 2 percent of all IT funds for security are allocated to prevent such activities, whereas 98 percent is spent to respond to incidents after they occur. The reason so little money is allocated to prevention, Geringer said, is because while 86 percent of governors’ chief information officers understand the complexities of IT, only 7 percent of legislators do, according to a government survey.

“Technology is the easy part,” Geringer said. “You get to change the culture. And the best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.

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