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A Litmus Test For Info-Sharing

Dale Meyerrose, a retired Air Force general who is in charge of information technology for the 16 agencies, said traditional acquisition was a "failed strategy," which had contributed to debacles like the National Security Agency's disastrous and highly classified Trailblazer program, and the FBI's failed Sentinel project, which congressional critics have lambasted as hundred-million -- or in Trailblazer's case multi-billion -- dollar boondoggles.
by Shaun Waterman
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor
Washington (UPI) Jan 09, 2007
The litmus test for the success of post-Sept. 11 efforts to overhaul and integrate the information systems of U.S. intelligence agencies is an ambitious new project code-named Railhead, which aims to create a seamless network of networks within which data about terrorist threats can freely and quickly flow to those who need, and are cleared, to see it.

Dale Meyerrose, a retired Air Force general who is in charge of information technology for the 16 agencies, told C-SPAN Television at the weekend that the project would create a single "information sharing environment within the National Counter-Terrorism Center," the multi-agency hub that vacuums up and analyzes terrorist threat intelligence from every corner of the U.S. government.

Meyerrose revealed the project's codename for the first time in a later interview with United Press International, saying Railhead was one of handful of programs his office was pushing forward as models of how agencies could integrate their information technology in a "synergized and cooperative" fashion.

The National Counter-Terrorism Center is the poster child for the efforts to reform U.S. intelligence, by forcing the sprawling and secretive bureaucracies of the spy agencies to collaborate more closely. But it has also become a symbol of the hoops analysts have to jump through, switching from network to network, sometimes on different workstations, to access material from different agencies' databases because policy development and government acquisition have lagged behind technological advance.

"Wrestling the (information technology, if you will, becomes more of what the person does in their workspace rather than adding intellectual value to the (intelligence) product that they're supposed to," Meyerrose said. "My job is in essence to make the (information technology) invisible."

Railhead aims to do that by putting into practice at the center Congress' vision of an Information Sharing Environment -- a sophisticated platform that will allow counter-terrorism information, including personal data about Americans, to be securely shared in a variety of ways that reflect and respect the different rules in place in different agencies to protect individual privacy and information security.

Meyerrose said Railhead and the other pilot projects were also testing a controversial new acquisition strategy called "spiral development."

He said a revolution in the way the government spends billions of dollars a year on computers and software is essential to keep up with fast-changing technologies.

"What is possible, what is doable, and what is probable, changes every 18-24 months in the information technology world," he said.

"Traditional, 'big bang' acquisition strategy, where you outline your requirements one year and take delivery three or four years later ... can't keep up" with that rate of technological change, he added.

Meyerrose said traditional acquisition was a "failed strategy," which had contributed to debacles like the National Security Agency's disastrous and highly classified Trailblazer program, and the FBI's failed Sentinel project, which congressional critics have lambasted as hundred-million -- or in Trailblazer's case multi-billion -- dollar boondoggles.

To fix the way the nation's spy agencies develop and deploy their information technology, Meyerrose said, spiral acquisition was a way of "not designing to requirement, but designing to opportunity," because intelligence agencies and the firms they are working with on new technology could change the specifications of a project as new capabilities became available.

Conversely, he said, if a project's requirements could be satisfied by a cutting-edge technology that wasn't stable enough yet for deployment, project managers could buy "bridging technologies" to use for a year or two in developing the project until the more advanced product was ready to be incorporated.

Prof. James Hendler, former chief scientist for information systems at the Pentagon's hatchery for cutting edge technology, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, told UPI that the classic model of spiral development was the way Microsoft builds software code, in a series of versions.

"You're developing (version 1.2), testing (version 1.1) and deploying (version 1.0) all at the same time," he explained.

In acquisition terms, he said, it was helpful to think of a decision to buy a television set. "You say you want a set that does this, this and this, and then you buy one." In spiral acquisition, he said, "I'm buying, not a TV set, but a continually improving way to watch television."

He cautioned that the term was a catch-all used to cover a number of different approaches to acquisition, all designed to reduce the enormous time lags that traditional procurement created between concept and deployment, and free up government buyers to take advantage of emerging new technologies.

Spiral acquisition is about "designing something that won't be obsolete by the time you deploy it," Hendler said.

But critics say the strategy can be a ticket to expensive programs that develop technologies which are late and don't meet requirements.

"We definitely have some concerns" about spiral acquisition, Ryan Alexander, president of non-partisan government spending watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense told UPI.

"The bottom line is, with anything that fails to identify upfront what the technology it's buying is supposed to do, it's hard to know if you're getting your money's worth," she said.

Meyerrose acknowledged the criticism, but said his office was working hard to develop ways to measure the efficacy of the new way of doing business.

"It will be as important and just as tough for us to come up with the right performance measures ... as it will to come up with the right technologies to fit with the right processes," he said.

Hendler said that spiral procurements sometimes looked more expensive, but used the analogy of buying a personal computer. "I can buy the cheapest computer that does what I want right now. Or I can spend a bit more money and buy something that I think will last three years. It's spending more now to save money in the future."

He said that spiral development was a model for acquisition in fields other than just computers and software. "It's good for integrating any fast changing technology," he said.

Meyerrose warned that he expected some resistance to the new strategies. "There are folks who don't like these kinds of changes," he said.

But he added that the Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, who announced last week that he was leaving for a job at the State Department, nonetheless "intends to exert leadership" to make sure needed changes happened.

"Fixing the acquisition capacities of the Intelligence Community ... is exactly what the (director of national intelligence) is supposed to do," said Meyerrose, vowing "take on" any would-be foot-draggers.

"There can be no pocket vetos in this business," he vowed.

Source: United Press International

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