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For nearly a year, we’ve watched the battle over DHS’ proposed National Application Office (NAO) unfold. To say it is a lesson on how not to establish a federal program utilizing some of the most powerful technologies and capabilities would be an understatement.

From the very start, it seems the NAO’s mission and scope have been fumbled and foiled. If it were a cartoon character, it could easily be compared to Warner Bros’ favorite, Wile E Coyote, falling off of a cliff towards eminent doom only to be followed by huge boulders, grand pianos and an assortment of other large-scale items that land on top of him. Every step this Office has taken towards its establishment has suffered from political tone-deafness, poor communications and a lack of champions to make its case.

When the NAO was first mentioned, it was described as a resource that would utilize space based assets from the intelligence and military communities to support ‘domestic purposes.’ Domestic purposes can mean a lot of things, but when you talk about using space-based assets, – specifically intelligence and military satellites – it conjures up images of Big Brother, or Will Smith running through the streets trying to avoid the evil government guys who are tracking his every move as seen in the feature film Enemy of the State.

While the vision of fiction offered by Orwell and Hollywood may be extreme, when you take the terms “domestic purposes” and “space-based military and intelligence assets” and inject them into today’s highly charged and politically toxic environment, this office and all of its well-intentioned purposes were doomed from the start.

Over the past two years, there have been some very real and serious charges raised about warrantless surveillance of citizens; abuses of power by the FBI and others under the auspices of the Patriot Act; and concerns over privacy infringement and civil rights/civil liberties violations. The constant debate over these charges have raged almost non-stop in Congress, the media, courtrooms and communities across the country.

Why anyone at DHS thought the NAO could be established in this environment using these assets for domestic purposes with no one raising a hullabaloo is beyond comprehension. Considering the highly-charged environment in which this office was being established, DHS should have laid out an aggressive and proactive public relations effort to educate Congress, the media and American citizens about its mission. While legitimate questions over the judgment guiding this office’s formation and rollout should be raised, the failure of the NAO to come into being is a missed opportunity for all of us.

Outside of cyber and telecommunications, there is no other technology area that can contribute to the homeland security mission the way geospatial technologies can. Geospatial technologies provide for the collection of imagery and information by satellites, aircraft, cameras and other sensors. Since their introduction during the Cold War, there is no community, sector or interest on the planet that has not been mapped, imaged or analyzed in some way. Equipped with tremendous all-hazard capabilities, geospatial technologies can capture, analyze, measure, record, profile, model and articulate impacts of events before and after they occur.

The old phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” does not begin to capture the possibilities that one image generated by geospatial technologies can offer to its users. Every person who gets an image will look at it in a thousand different ways. In fact, it can be said that “a pixel is worth millions of possibilities” – which is exactly what is so frustrating about the current NAO debacle.

Instead of using these technologies to bring various stakeholders together by improving information sharing, all-hazard planning and building collaborative working relationships, the Department chose a path where secrecy in collection, applications and delivery took priority over the potential rewards that collaboration could offer.

Choosing to use military and intelligence assets as your information conduit is a sure way to avoid bringing people to the table for collaborative usage. Such a position flies in the face of all of the noted pronouncements about DHS’ commitment to information sharing and building public and private sector partners in the national homeland mission.

I have no problem with the use of military and intelligence assets for legitimate and time-critical national, homeland and infrastructure security needs. For decades, these capabilities have saved countless lives, property and interests on this continent and others. The problem with starting an office such as the NAO when its information pipeline is so restrictive is the message, attitude and posture it transmits.

By limiting access, information and involvement to those precious few with the highest of security clearances, DHS is essentially saying This is a Members Only Club and only people ‘in the know’ can belong.

That is not a message I think DHS or anyone else can afford to relay anymore. Furthermore, by being cryptic in describing the NAO’s mission and approach without building a stakeholder community to support it, and being outright silent about its operations, the Department has sent nearly every conceivable wrong message to everyone about this office.

The end results of their actions are pretty apparent.

  • • An agitated Congress has delivered stern ‘No Confidence’ votes as evidenced by the language included in both the House and Senate Appropriations Bills that prevent any funds from being spent on the NAO; and,
  • • No state, local, tribal or private sector leader has come forward publicly to fight for the establishment of the NAO.

These two conditions tell you one thing – the NAO is dead in the water.

Had DHS been more forthcoming about its aspirations for this office – perhaps by defining ‘domestic purposes,’ focusing upon addressing ‘all-hazards’ at the outset and using the NAO-centered associated technologies and applications to enhance disaster/emergency management planning – they would not be in the position they are today.

DHS also would have been wise to discuss using commercially available satellites and resources (which are more than capable of doing the job) and publicly sharing some (but not all) of the requirements they wanted satisfied.

Had they taken this more public path, instead of the clandestine one it chose, the Department might have had a multitude of public and private sector stakeholders who could be championing the need for an NAO. Instead, they opted for the covert “Big Brother” route (and mechanisms) which has left them without Congressional support, without supportive stakeholders and without the NAO.

Given the time left on the Administration’s clock, the upcoming election and the operational needs of the transition, it is all but certain that the NAO or something like it will be left to a new Administration.

My advice to that new leadership about the NAO is quite simple: Start over. The premise and promise behind an NAO has tremendous potential given the nature of the technologies involved and the benefits they offer. If done right, an NAO could be a catalyst to help the Fusion Centers, as well as state, local, tribal and private sector members to become the information sharing leaders and networks that we need them to be.

The wreckage of the current NAO demonstrates the path and arrogance to be avoided. With the challenges the Department and its partners have to contend, having paths of inclusion and partnerships are paramount to future successes, technology adoption and relationship building – things that did not seem to be built into the NAO mission to begin with but should have been.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More