Two Early-Warning Homeland Security Centers at Risk Due to Funding

Centers were designed for security information sharing for energy and transit industries


WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. government has ended grant programs that has provided more than $1.2 million (euro940,000) a year since 2002 for two homeland security organizations that distribute information about potential threats to oil and gas and public transit companies.

The information sharing and analysis centers were set up to protect energy and bus, rail and ferry systems.

Collectively, more than a dozen such centers help protect banks, chemical plants, water utilities and other sectors. The centers, many of which are privately financed, are part of the Bush administration's effort to encourage corporations to ensure the safety of vital parts of the country's infrastructure.

The energy industry's early warning center lost $629,000 (euro485,000) in annual Energy Department grants since 2002. On Friday, it switched to a cheaper communications network that can relay emergency notices from the government to its 500 members, which represent leading oil and gas companies and organizations.

Unlike the old system, it will not permit member companies to distribute among themselves terror warnings, tips or other data.

"We're still figuring out how to provide the more detailed analytical capabilities _ more than the government provides _ and how to share information between members,'' said Kendra Martin, director of security for the American Petroleum Institute.

The warning center for the public transit industry, which serves more than 130 companies and organizations, risks shutting down as early as next month because the Federal Transit Authority did not renew its two-year federal grant that paid $600,000 (euro462,850) per year.

In each case, the Homeland Security Department encouraged the industry centers to join for free its new Homeland Security Information Network, which distributes government alerts among corporations, trade groups and others.

Some officials said they worried that participation in the federal network could discourage companies from sharing sensitive details among themselves about threats they would prefer to keep from the government.

"It would certainly dampen the sharing,'' Martin said. "Nothing would prevent companies from continuing to share, but they would be sharing information on a government system that the government has access to. It was different when we knew it was a system we controlled.''

The administration said it did not intend to discourage information sharing among companies.

Each industry's early warning center will decide whether or how it would share warnings with the government, said Jim Caverly, director of Homeland Security's Infrastructure Coordination Division.

He acknowledged that the government limits industries' use of a federally funded information network without any benefit to the government.

"If the biggest players in industry want to have a closed community to talk about sensitive threats or problems, they should have the ability and right to do that,'' said Harris Miller, head of the Washington-based Information Technology Association of America, a trade group. ``Then you decide whether to share that information with the government.''

Miller, who represents the warning center for the technology industry, said the industry centers should be capable of both discussing threats privately and notifying the government when appropriate.