Homeland Security chief wants to collaborate

Protecting critical assets requires cooperation with the private sector, he says. Companies seem to agree.

WASHINGTON--The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's top official on Tuesday called for streamlined communication with private firms holding a stake in the nation's critical infrastructure, which includes everything from the power grid to dams to cyberspace.

The disaster wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and recent threats directed at New York City's subway "underscored the importance of making sure our information flows freely and accurately," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at a Washington meeting of the department's 3-year-old .

The council--composed of about 30 representatives from an array of sectors, including software, finance, academia and public utilities--indicated it agreed with Chertoff's suggestion. Members devoted a good portion of the meeting to presenting their own recommendations for encouraging a public-private partnership.

Members released a near-final report proposing a "sector partnership model" in which leaders from the private sector and government counterparts that do similar work would share information about sector-specific topics. Unlike formal governmental advisory committees that involve private sector voices, these groups of leaders would be self-organized bodies and remain independent of government control.

Special exemption needed
Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers, who serves as vice chairman of the council, voiced his support for the approach at the meeting. According to the council, the method also enjoys broad private sector approval.

But private sector groups partaking in the partnership would likely need special exemption from federal law to function in the most uninhibited fashion, the council members said. Under the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act, non-governmental advisory committees must adhere to strict procedures, including publishing advance notice of meetings and, in most circumstances, leaving them open to the public.

In an emergency situation where real-time, private-sector advice is critical, this requirement could pose problems, council members argued. And, they said, some companies involved have reason to worry that sensitive information, particularly about the infrastructure they manage, is not suitable for public release for various reasons.

A clause in the legislation that spawned the Homeland Security Department allows the secretary to exempt advisory committees from the rule in special circumstances. Members of the council argued that the secretary should exercise that right in creating the public-private partnership.

"We don't take lightly the idea of seeking an exception to FACA," said Council Chairman Erle Nye, chairman emeritus of TXU, a Texas-based energy firm.

Chertoff said he would confer with department officials on the suggestion.

"We all share the goal of having a very fluid, interactive way of (sharing information) between the public and the private sector," he said. "The more easily we allow the back and forth to occur, the better it will be."

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