WASHINGTON -- Reversing course, the Homeland Security Department announced yesterday that it will allow state and local officials to participate in a new counterterrorism unit designed to share information about possible terrorist threats.
The unit was created to address a long-standing complaint that states and localities do not receive timely threat information from the federal government, leading to the type of confusion that ensued over a possible plot to blow up a tunnel in Baltimore in 2005.
Charles Allen, chief intelligence officer at Homeland Security, told members of Congress that the department supports the participation of state and local representatives on the Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group, which will soon begin operations.
"I pledge my staff's full effort to make this happen as smoothly and swiftly as possible," Allen said at a hearing of a House Homeland Security subcommittee.
Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, called the announcement "a win for our communities, which should, as a result, get better intelligence out to the first preventers."
She said the unit is particularly important because local officials need more information to track down "homegrown" terrorist cells, noting that one such radicalized group had been uncovered in her Los Angeles-area district.
The announcement ended a lengthy stalemate between the department and the White House, which had ordered the creation of the group last year.
Homeland Security officials had balked at including state and local officials in the group because, they said, the unit was just packaging information and it might confuse rather than improve communications to include them.
But officials from the White House, Congress and several intelligence agencies argued that state and local officials should be included to ensure that the information in the bulletins was truly useful.
Allen pledged that the Homeland Security effort would "set the standard for inclusiveness, access and collaboration" with officials at all levels of government.
"If there's a threat out there, it's going to get down to the local level," he said.
White House orders
After a report in The Sun earlier this month about the dispute, the White House notified federal agencies involved in negotiations over the unit, including Homeland Security, that state and local officials must be part of the Threat Assessment group, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal communications.
In meetings on the issue as recently as last month, Homeland Security officials had staunchly opposed state and local participation, according to briefing documents and meeting participants.
Homeland Security officials had argued that they needed time to establish the unit and that adding state and local officials would create, as one put it, "unnecessary confusion." They also said that state and local officials already have other opportunities to participate in threat analyses.
Allen did not provide specifics about how state and local officials will be incorporated into the group but said he expects it to be "up and running" in the coming weeks.
The unit, to be housed at the National Counterterrorism Center in Northern Virginia, is expected to have two or three state and local officials on its staff of about 15.
Members of the group would likely come from the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and other federal agencies, according to internal documents. The group would evaluate the sources and content of terrorism information and issue reports tailored to state and local needs.
Matter of trust
Kerry Sleeper, Vermont's homeland security adviser, who has been representing state homeland advisers in the negotiations, said he found Homeland Security's new position "encouraging." But he added that the department's prolonged opposition had damaged relations with state and local officials.
He said that "it'll remain to be seen" whether the strongly held opinions of Homeland Security officials "can be overcome with a simple [directive to] make it happen. This type of process requires trust and collaboration."
There is a significant need for improvement, he said, pointing to a front-page article in the Montreal Gazette on an alleged al-Qaida threat to target Canada's oil and natural gas facilities aimed at damaging the U.S. economy.
"You would assume that DHS would recognize that border states have a vested interest in Canada," he said. But he said he received no information from Homeland Security about whether the report was credible.