INSIDE WASHINGTON/Bills would close communication gap
A month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal officials acquired intelligence information that suggested terrorists were planning to smuggle a nuclear bomb into New York. Local officials were not told about the tip and did not learn about it until last month when Time magazine reported the incident. Not surprisingly, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. George Pataki led a chorus of local and congressional officials who sharply criticized the federal government for failing to share the information with them.
The tip eventually was deemed to be false, but it illustrates the lack of communication and cooperation between federal and local officials since Sept. 11. “Nobody at the local level knew anything about it,” says Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D — S.D.) of the nuclear threat. “There has got to be as much information sharing as is practical and prudent, but, nonetheless, a lot more than what we see now.”
Help is on the way in the form of legislation that would encourage information sharing between city, county and federal officials. Current law restricts federal authorities’ ability to share information about terrorist groups and potential threats with local and state police. However, the bipartisan measure offered in the House by members of the Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security would help break down the communication barriers.
“We cannot achieve top levels of homeland security if we cannot share information,” says Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R — Ga.), chairman of the subcommittee. “Our first step in combating the war on terrorism and preventing future attacks of all kinds is establishing standards and methods of communicating between federal, state and local governing entities.”
The bill calls on U.S. law enforcement agencies to employ the techniques used by NATO and INTERPOL to share information. (Technology used within those organizations allows them to share information that can be easily scrubbed of sources. The groups also employ methods that allow for quick distribution of information to their members.) The legislation also calls for an increase in security clearance investigations for state and local officials to allow them to be privy to information that is too sensitive to declassify. In the Senate, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced similar legislation.
Congressional rhetoric largely favors the local government position. “All terrorist acts are local,” says California Rep. Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Subcommittee. “Our local responders need the best information we have to protect our nation.”
Santa Fe County (N.M.) Commissioner Javier Gonzales says it is imperative that an information-sharing plan be put in place soon. “We need to figure out a way for everyone, from local officials to the federal government, to have a method of gathering, distributing and using intelligence information to protect our communities,” says Gonzales, who also serves as the president of the National Association of Counties.
City and county leaders also have criticized federal government agencies for issuing vague warnings about possible future attacks. Since Sept. 11, the federal government has issued four broad terrorist alerts offering little guidance to local officials who must cope with a terrified public.
To blunt the criticism, Homeland Security Czar Tom Ridge has unveiled a new alert system designed to provide local officials with the guidance needed to judge the seriousness of each threat. The system will have five categories based upon the lowest to highest level of threat that will be determined by federal law enforcement officials.
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.