WASHINGTON -- Nearly five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security continue to clash over who is in charge of coordinating and vetting information on terrorism. As a result, state and local authorities continue to get conflicting or incomplete information - sometimes none at all - on threats inside the United States, officials say.
The feud over control of the information caused federal agencies last week to miss a White House deadline for outlining how it should be distributed to state and local authorities, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said yesterday.
The absence of a federal game plan is causing "confusion at the state level," said Col. Ken Bouche, who heads the information management division of the Illinois State Police. "The longer we wait ... the more leads we miss."
Under federal law, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security are considered the main repositories for information about terrorism.
In part because it has a long-established system for sharing information through joint task forces, the Justice Department was at first "somewhat resistant" to the notion of a broader plan, said a counterterrorism official familiar with the issue. Eventually, officials at Justice agreed that Homeland Security had an important role to play and that a plan was needed to incorporate the department.
Meanwhile, though Homeland Security officials were well-intentioned, they consistently took the position that the legislation that created the department gave it sole responsibility for information sharing, the counterterrorism official said.
In a December memo, President Bush directed Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to provide a solution by June 14.
But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said yesterday that the president still had not received their proposal and left open when she expected it to arrive.
"They reached some consensus on broad aspects of the framework, and they are still working," she said. "We expect to see some additional progress soon."
The dispute over which agency will be the one to communicate with state homeland security directors has been a major sticking point, said a federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions are still under way.
That and other knotty issues led to something of a deadlock, in which Homeland Security "insists that it be the lead, but [the Justice Department] and the FBI question whether it has the capacity to do it," a counterterrorism official said.
The bureaucratic differences cause headaches in Washington and at the state level. Federal and state officials point to miscommunications last fall about threats in Baltimore and New York, in which local officials received incomplete or conflicting information about terrorist threats to their cities.
"At the federal level, there's a lot of confusion over who is responsible for what," Bouche said. "There isn't a common place to vet or gather information."
He said the quality of reports from Washington has improved, but he chalked up the continuing mixed messages to a lack of will in Washington to make hard decisions and give up some power.
"You need to have leadership that says, 'I don't care if this is a little painful, you need to do this for the common good,'" Bouche said.
In addition to increasing the likelihood that some key piece of information will not get passed to the states, Bouche said, mixed messages from Washington make it difficult for Illinois to develop its own strategy and train state police to recognize indicators of possible terrorist activity. After the subway bombings last year in London, he said, "information wasn't coming out rapidly at all."
In Massachusetts, Secretary of Public Safety Robert Haas said he is getting some joint bulletins from the Homeland Security Department and the FBI, but he is also receiving individual messages that might or might not be consistent.
"If you're getting information from different federal sources," Haas said, "you're always running the risk of getting conflicting information."
Homeland Security and the FBI have increasingly been sending out joint bulletins, but they are not always informative, said a counterterrorism official. The bulletin sent out after the arrests this month of an alleged Canadian cell believed to be local radicals inspired by al-Qaida was one paragraph long, compared with an eight-page analysis one of the state analysis centers produced, he said.
"There's some variability on where all the states are" in communicating with Washington, said Dennis Schrader, Maryland's homeland security director.
He said Maryland has developed a workable solution by integrating FBI and Homeland Security officials into the state's terrorism analysis center. That is providing a steady stream of information, Schrader said. The Homeland Security officials were assigned to Maryland's center after the October truck bomb threat to Baltimore's tunnels, Schrader said. State officials got incomplete information during the threat because they lacked a direct link to the federal agency, he said.
Miscommunication between federal officials and their local counterparts could make it harder for the cop on the beat to notice a homegrown terrorist cell or could create vulnerabilities that terrorists could use to mount a surprise attack, said John Rollins, who was a senior intelligence official at the Homeland Security Department who worked previously for the FBI.
State and local officials are losing patience.
"Someone needs to be stepping up and taking a leadership role and saying, 'We've got to solve this,'" Bouche said.
Bush's December directive assigned several tasks to spy chief John D. Negroponte, but he was to serve only an advisory role on the state and local communication plan, which was handed to Homeland Security and Justice. When the two agencies could not get on the same page, Negroponte's deputy for information sharing, Thomas "Ted" McNamara, stepped in.
In an effort to find a solution, McNamara, upon his arrival three months ago, set out immediately on a listening tour of the intelligence agencies for ideas on unscrambling the federal communications-sharing duties, he said yesterday in an interview. "If you listen to competing interests, you can usually sort them through."
McNamara has drafted a proposal based on what he learned, and sought feedback from the agencies. While he would not reveal many details because it is still being reviewed, he said its focus is to provide a mechanism to enable the federal government to speak with "one voice" to state officials and to establish a system for states to send important information to Washington. The White House and the relevant agencies are evaluating his plan.
But one counterterrorism official said that the White House found that the proposal did not fully address the president's request and that the Justice and Homeland Security departments were not on board with it, so the White House is now taking charge of the negotiations.
"There's no consensus on a couple key issues," the official said, such as the federal agencies' division of labor.
McNamara played down the differences as "kind of bureaucratic issues rather than the actual substance." He said there was agreement "in principle" on the plan.
Spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the Justice Department has "worked diligently" with other agencies to construct the plan the president has called for, adding that it is in its "final stages."
At Homeland Security, spokesman Russ Knocke emphasized that his agency and the Justice Department have reached a "consensus on the broad aspects of the plan" but acknowledged that there are "a number of complexities" that they will "continue to work on."
He would "hesitate to forecast a timetable" for completion, he said, because "it is not something that you want to prematurely push through."