Seeking a bigger say in homeland security decisions, the nation's governors are creating a new, 50-state panel to give the states a single voice on national plans to prepare for threats from terrorists and natural disasters.
The Homeland Security Advisors Council will aim to resolve problems between the federal and state governments that predate the 2002 creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, from intelligence to funding to sharing National Guard resources.
"If we speak with one unified voice, it'll help," said Michael Campion, Minnesota's public safety commissioner and the top aide to Gov. Tim Pawlenty on homeland security. "Absent that, we're not going to do anything. We're a voice in the wilderness."
The council will work through the National Governors Association, with each governor appointing a top security official, the governors' group expected to announce Thursday. The council plans to meet at least twice a year to share best practices and improve interstate communications.
The formation of the council comes a month after a survey of state homeland security directors found widespread dissatisfaction with the way the federal government works with states.
Among the top complaints: limited sharing of intelligence on possible terrorist threats; multiple burdens placed on National Guard troops; and, insufficient preparations for natural disasters and other emergencies.
The council will help inform governors, and will stress to the federal government that states want to be included in planning efforts, said Maj. Gen. Tim Lowenberg, head of the Washington National Guard and director of the state's emergency management division.
Currently, there's no consistent, in-depth communication between the federal DHS and its state counterparts, said Lowenberg, like Campion a member of the council.
"We do have periodic conference calls hosted by the Department of Homeland Security," he said. "Those conference calls rarely last more than 30, 45 minutes."
DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen said coordination with states has been improving, and that the agency has especially stepped up those efforts in advance of hurricane season.
The top challenges facing the states are the same ones that officials were talking about in 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks: improving communications so all agencies responding to a disaster can talk to each other; sharing intelligence information quickly and effectively; building medical capacity to respond to a mass catastrophe.
"People are still feeling their way through this," Campion said. "We don't have the same history as we do in fighting fires, or fighting organized crime. We've got decades of experience with that (while) we've only got five years of this whole terrorism, homeland security thing."
"There's some real challenge to this," he said. "That's why it's important to get these people together."
On the Web:
National Governors Association: http://www.nga.org