Pres-elect Obama's pick for Homeland Security failed to complete her own state's detailed security plan... even after six years
PHOENIX – President-elect Barack Obama's choice for homeland security chief blames budget problems and the difficulty coordinating agencies in Arizona, where she has been governor, for failing to complete key provisions of a detailed security plan for her own state.
Gov. Janet Napolitano put together the plan six years ago to improve Arizona's ability to respond to emergencies, detect and prevent terrorist attacks and secure Arizona's border with Mexico. But some key provisions remain incomplete. Firefighters, paramedics and other first responders at disaster scenes still can't always communicate by radio without calling in special equipment, and criminal records still aren't fully available electronically.
Napolitano would face challenges on an even larger scale at the Homeland Security Department. Unable to accomplish all her state's homeland security goals, she goes before Congress with an obvious question on the table: Can she do better in Washington? Her Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for Thursday, just days before Obama's inauguration.
The Homeland Security Department she's been tapped to run — the sprawling agency responsible for hurricane aid, airport security, border patrols, cyber security, the Coast Guard and more — is among the most expansive bureaucracies in Washington.
Napolitano said in an interview that the state had made "good progress." She acknowledged all parts of the security plan hadn't been completed but said her experiences would help her meet her federal responsibilities.
Her critics weren't so generous.
"We're probably doing a C-plus," said Jeff Hatch-Miller, a former Republican lawmaker in Arizona who worked on homeland security. "I don't think we're failing." He said Arizona didn't spend enough money on homeland security, especially on efforts to fix communications problems and detect diseases.
Napolitano announced her state homeland security plan, "Securing Arizona," shortly after she became governor in 2003.
Key provisions included:
_Appointing a new state homeland security director.
_Establishing a statewide, interoperable radio system for emergency workers.
_Launching a new "211" statewide telephone system with community and health information.
_Integrating information systems used by police, courts and prisons to share criminal records electronically and help identify emerging terror trends.
_Setting up a statewide disease surveillance system with doctors, hospitals and others to detect signs of biological or chemical attacks.
_Obtaining more federal money to help protect Arizona's southern border.
Most parts of the Arizona plan are completed. The state created a homeland security agency, opened a counterterrorism center to collect and share intelligence, bolstered disease surveillance systems, appointed a border liaison officer and updated its emergency plan.
Its counterterrorism center, which opened in October 2004, was among the initial handful of "fusion centers" opened by most states nationwide.
It allows state and local employees to share information with FBI agents and analysts, who work in the same building but behind locked doors separating them from the state and local government workers who don't have security clearances.
"It helps us to identify patterns and areas of concerns," said Lori Norris, a center watch commander and state Department of Public Safety lieutenant.
But major provisions of Napolitano's plan aren't finished. There are gaps getting high-tech equipment into the hands of law enforcement officers and making individuals' criminal records available electronically, said John Blackburn Jr., director of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission.
And Arizona gulped over a $250 million to $350 million price tag to overhaul its microwave communications system, to allow seamless radio calls among emergency workers. It's now using mobile vans to patch together transmissions from different agencies responding to a terrorist strike or disaster, and new equipment has been installed at sheriff's departments across the state to allow interoperability.
Phoenix and other metro areas are covered, but not rural parts of the state, said Chris Cummiskey, a Napolitano appointee who heads the state Government Information Technology Agency.
"We're making headway," Cummiskey said.
Arizona has a 211 system that is scaled back from what it had planned. It includes a Web site as well as a phone center that can be activated to distribute terror warnings and recommendations, along with information about social services and non-terrorism emergencies.
But a network of regional call centers never got off the ground. Local governments balked at paying $5 million annually to operate regional offices around Arizona, and $3 million that the state set aside for the program instead went to help prevent it from falling into debt.
Arizona's director for homeland security, Leesa Morrison, said the state is almost finished updating its emergency plan and plans a comprehensive study to assess potential terrorism targets to help shape spending priorities.
"My vision is that we will become one of the first states in the nation to complete a target capability assessment of this magnitude," Morrison said.