Information-sharing still a roadblock

Washington — - President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser told governors Sunday that federal agencies still aren't sharing enough critical information with state and local officials, more than eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

John Brennan, the president's special assistant for homeland security, said information-sharing has improved since 2001. But "we still have a long way to go," he said. "We're not there yet, certainly."

Brennan made the remarks in response to a question from Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, at the first meeting of a new National Governors Association committee on homeland security and public safety.

O'Malley, who chairs the panel, said the continuing lack of information-sharing among federal and state law enforcement and intelligence agencies remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to improving the nation's ability to respond to terrorist incidents or keep them from happening in the first place.

The Democratic governor said the problem was pervasive among federal agencies. There still seems to be a "J. Edgar Hoover-based" fear that sharing information "will compromise investigations," O'Malley said.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said a "paradigm shift" would be needed to improve communications between federal authorities and the 800,000 people who work in state and law enforcement. She said that information-sharing was one of the top issues she's worked on in the past year and acknowledged its importance in combating terrorism.

"The need to get to the bottom of threat streams and get information out in real time is essential," she said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a potential 2012 Republican presidential contender, asked what states could do to attack the growing problem of home-grown terrorists, such as Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter.

Napolitano said that authorities are "just beginning to confront the reality that we have this issue from within the United States as well, and that we really don't have a very good handle on how you prevent someone from becoming a violent extremist."

Brennan said there is an urgent need for more "community engagement" - getting ordinary citizens, not just local law enforcement, involved in detecting threats. He cited the case of five men from Northern Virginia who were arrested in Pakistan in December and are said to have traveled there to train with Taliban militants. The Virginia men, who have denied planning terrorist attacks, had been reported missing by their families.

O'Malley, mayor of Baltimore at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, has worked over the years to raise his profile on homeland security matters, a potentially potent political issue.

"Voters' interest in security tends to be episodic," O'Malley said in an interview Friday. "If crime is up, there's more concern about crime. If we've just been attacked, there's more concern about national security.

"I don't have that luxury. I have to be concerned about it every day. D.C. is surrounded by Maryland, so we have to be more focused on preparedness and security than any other state in the union, save for New York," he said. "It's just the reality of how Maryland is situated."

Voters might not be the only ones with an episodic interest in homeland security. At the NGA's winter meeting, only five governors joined O'Malley in hearing from Napolitano, Brennan and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Meantime, more than twice as many governors were in the next room, attending a session on education.

But for O'Malley, the urgency invoked by the Sept. 11 attacks remains a vivid memory.

"I was pacing back and forth," he said last week, thinking about the possibilities if Baltimore "had to be spontaneously evacuated."

"It was then and there that I decided we would become, as a city, a leader on homeland security. I wanted to be among the most-prepared cities, instead of the least-prepared," he said. "I know that same discipline and drive has carried over into state government."

The O'Malley administration promotes the consolidation of radio, dispatch and computer emergency systems as one of its chief accomplishments. The governor has also focused on information-sharing, in part by expanding the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, and prioritizing emergency training.

Sunday night, the governors and their wives attended a black-tie dinner at the White House, with entertainment by Harry Connick Jr.

The governors are to return to the White House this morning for a group meeting with Obama.