FBI's NIPC eyes major restructuring

The FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) is preparing for what could be a radical overhaul of its structure and how it works with other federal agencies and the private sector.

NIPC Director Ron Dick said in an interview last week that he has been in discussions with both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Communications System (NCS) in an effort to decide which agency's organizational model is better suited to the NIPC. He said he expects to make a decision in the next few months.

"We're going to adopt one of the two because those models have been out there for a long time," said Dick. However, he said, "We're still trying to figure out the best method to do that and keep the private sector on a level playing field."

The NIPC, based at FBI headquarters, was formed in 1998 to handle threat assessment, investigations and responses to any attacks on critical U.S. infrastructures.

The Atlanta-based CDC fulfills a mission similar to that of the NIPC, in that it conducts surveillance, detection and analysis of health threats throughout the nation, issuing warnings when necessary. The CDC is a major operating component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It has 11 subcomponents. Each subcomponent has a different specialty, but all of them have the mission of entering into information-sharing partnerships with federal, state and local government agencies.

Founded in 1962 in the aftermath of communications failures during the Cuban missile crisis, the NCS is made up of 22 federal agencies and advises the president on key telecommunications issues and policies. Each agency provides a representative to sit on a Committee of Principals.

According to Dick, by adopting the model of either the CDC or the NCS, the NIPC would take a major step toward overcoming one of its key challenges: tapping into the expertise in various aspects of critical infrastructure protection that resides in many places throughout the government and the private sector.

In the past, the NIPC has studied ways of acquiring direct assistance from private-sector experts, including a provision that would allow the U.S. Attorney General to accept what is known as a "gift of services" from a private company. However, the Clinton administration ruled out that option, claiming it would create a conflict of interest and other legal obstacles, said Dick.

"You can't task them to do anything because they're not federal employees," he said.

Alan Paller, director of the SANS Institute in Bethesda, Md., said the NIPC has been looking at the CDC model for three years and in many ways is already moving in that direction.

"CDC's prevention work, such as [administering] flu shots, is especially important, and I see a push by NIPC in that direction as well," said Paller, referring to NIPC's mission to facilitate the distribution of vaccines to fight computer viruses.

"The mature model at CDC could offer some wonderful guidelines for long-term planning at NIPC," said Paller.

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