Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 16, 2009

When information sharing starts to buzz

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Christopher Bellavita on September 16, 2009

I spent last weekend talking with a dozen state and local homeland security executives.  During our conversation I was surprised to hear that “information sharing” has evolved into a buzzword.

Urban Dictionary — my favorite on line semantic arbiter – defines buzzword as a “term or phrase that sounds good, but means nothing.”

“Someone sends out a blast email,” one of the homeland security executives said, “and they consider that to be information sharing.”

The other folks in the room nodded in immediate agreement.

OK, maybe they’re right, I thought.  But maybe they’re also being a touch cynical.

Today I opened the following email message (slightly edited for publication).  The information was sent on Monday, but I didn’t get to it until Tuesday — you know how emails can pile up:

All users and organizations of the FEMA Secure Portal must cease operations.  The system will be taken off line midnight EDT, September 14, 2009.  All organizations using the Portal must make alternate arrangements for information sharing until the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) is operational and Communities of Interest are activated on or about October 29, 2009.

The transition from the Secure Portal (https://xxxxxxxxxxx.dhs.gov) to the DHS Homeland Security Information Network, as previously announced in Information Bulletin #317, will be carried out between September 15, 2009 and approximately October 29, 2009.  During this time, disused Portal organizations will be deactivated and their information stored according to FEMA records management policies.  Portal organizations with a continued need for Sensitive But Unclassified information sharing will be migrated to HSIN.  No changes made to Portal organization data or membership made after 9/14/09 will be transferred to HSIN.  The Secure Portal will be decommissioned on or about 10/30/09.

FEMA Secure Portal users can obtain answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) from a document named Migration Frequently Asked Questions in the Secure Portal Portal Migration folder. Questions can also be directed to CSID at 1-800-xxx-xxxx or xxxxxxx@fema.gov.  Grant program stakeholders may also contact their Program Analyst for further information.

I’m not sure who sent me the information, or why.  But whoever it was, thanks for sharing.


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Comment by William R. Cumming

September 16, 2009 @ 5:59 am

An important topic and worthy of a great comment. Probably not from me but here goes. First addressing the message above, clearly a six week outage for a portal some may have high regards for (no access here)is remarkable and indicative that designers have no regard for impacts of interruption. Second, appears that over-classification or deliberate withholding of non-classified information again plagues FEMA. One of the key reforms made by James Lee Witt (and perhaps this accounted for some of his success) was the implementation of recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel headed by retired Generals Goodpaster and Trefy that nailed cold the misuse of the personnel and information security systems in FEMA and recommended reductions in personnel security clearances in FEMA. Over 40% of personnel in Witt’s FEMA “Lost” their clearances with consequent improvement in all FEMA operations and reductions of stove-pipes. I testified and briefed the 9/11 Commission staff on how the non-statutory, none adminstrative supervised “need to know” principle was used to protect bureacracy from oversight on waste, fraud, and abuse, and to promote internal heirarchy’s often related to career advancement not mission assignments.
To my mind information sharing is predicated on being able to accomplish your assigned mission and do your job not general distribution of information that may or may not be actionable. It is interesting that the Implementation of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (Public Law 110-53, signed August 3, 2007) again addressed information sharing and chartered for the first time the STATE FUSION CENTERS for federal support and funding.
A specific argument that lack of information sharing resulted in the 9/11 tragedy. OPM just now is working on reforming the Security Clearance Process which has been contorted by the removal of certan by all of the clearances of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer by Lewis Straus of the AEC in the early 50’s and the issuance of an exective order still in effect that badly needs revision–EO 10450–that let’s the head of each federal department or agency be the final arbiter of who gets or keeps a clearance. The so-called Trefery Report is available from FAS!

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 16, 2009 @ 8:02 am

The URL for the Trefery Report is below:


Comment by Paul McNeil

September 16, 2009 @ 9:16 am

The DHS has been pushing HSIN on us (states & locals)since 2003 (it was called HSIN-JRIES then). We were never consulted whether we needed it, wanted it or would ever use it – it was just pushed from the top down. HSIN never lived up to the methods of information sharing we were using at the time, and are still using as preferences today. Here is how HSIN works today, and how useful it is to me: I will get an email message from DHS thru Outlook informing me that I have “sensitive but unclassified” or “FOUO” information in my HSIN portal. I then have to take the steps (rigamorole) to go online, bring up HSIN, log in and locate the document referred to in the email. In the meanwhile – no lie – the very same information, usually verbatim, has already been broadcast in the media and/or been delivered by other sources thru Outlook. The bottom line is HSIN is, has been and probably always will be useless.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 16, 2009 @ 9:23 am

Okay exactly what has been spent on HSIN by DHS? What component established it and uses it?

Comment by Allenby

September 16, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

We have been using HSIN for the past 3 years. Granted, for the first several months, we had no guidance on what was expected of HSIN users – or contributors. Since then, we have participated in quarterly user video-teleconferences and have learned a great deal. This is a straight Forward portal technology that provides the potential for members of a shared mission interest to communicate and collaborate from disparate locations – and to create actionable information. I can access HSIN from any computer with internet connectivity, 24×7 – and often do so while holding training exercises across our state. The comments above sound like someone expecting something to be spoon fed from DHS or other Federal entities. At our state level, we have practitioners from several different counties collaborating on a daily basis to ensure the continuity of operations within our borders. However, when emergencies happen, and we move from steady state to respond and recover, we have established relationships with our REGIONAL partners, because local emergencies can become regional issues in very short order. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that once the members of a community perform the due dilligence to establish processes, governance, membership criteria, and partnerships with other communities – valuable information and intelligence is organically created and this can then be shared with not only their community, but with a greater audience of first responders, disaster managers, operation centers, et al.

Before we all share information, it has to be created and that flow always starts and ends at the state or local level. The quality of information received FROM DHS is directly related to the quality of information received BY DHS. I failed to mention that when we were asked to use HSIN, there were no associated costs. We were GIVEN a portal platform with the ability to communicate with HSIN users across the country and internationally. It only made sense to make the most of what was given, create a center of excellence or “clearinghouse” for our information and intelligence – and then share what could be shared with the greater audience. Lessons learned, best practices. Once we started an open dialogue with relevant partners, they started sharing with us. I think you see where I’m going. HSIN is as useful as we want it to be.

Comment by johnr

September 16, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

Recognizing this may be seen as arguing over a term, suggest that post 9/11 homeland security related information related goals will not be achieved until we see the problem as one of “information access”, not “information-sharing.” As a researcher, practitioner, or decision-maker I don’t need another entity providing me information they think I need. Rather, in a non-imminent threat environment I wish to quickly access a database and search for the information that is most relevant to my mission space and that also allows me to collaborate with others that have like interests. Don’t give me an e-mail system designed to disseminate information that may be interesting but not relevant. Give me access to a database that allows a multi-level search of unclassified, and when possible, classified, information that I can manipulate and focus for issues related to my responsibilities and that launches a tool that assists with collaborating with others also interested in the topic. Give me Goog-Int (Google Intelligence).

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