- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A key post-Sept. 11 security priority is on the federal budget chopping block — hand-held radios that allow officers from different law enforcement agencies to talk to each other.

The House and the Senate spending plans would slash up to $100 million for the Justice Department’s Integrated Wireless Network (IWN), which would replace the mis-matched radios that were in use during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“The quality of the radios they have now is horrible,” said James Craig, former chief information officer for the Drug Enforcement Administration, of the often incompatible radio systems still being used by the FBI, DEA and U.S. Marshals Service.

“There’s a potential for agents to be hurt or killed” because of the limitations of these systems, some of which are almost 20 years old, Mr. Craig said. “Day to day, the agents rely on their radios.”

He said that federal law enforcers are “just trying to hang on [with old gear] until they transition to the new system.”

Now it looks like that transition will not happen.

Outside of the greater Washington area, where IWN came on line last year, the plan is set to become a victim of bipartisan efforts to tackle the spiraling deficit by cutting government spending in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Mr. Craig, who retired from the DEA in 2008, said the government struggled for years to devise a plan to modernize the VHF and UHF radios used by law enforcement. Work finally began on IWN in 2009, according to government documents.

“The agencies finally got together and have a plan, and everybody’s on the same page … and now the rug’s been pulled away,” Mr. Craig said of the proposed cuts.

He was one of the architects of the IWN plan when he worked at the DEA. After leaving the government, he worked for 20 months for Motorola, one of the companies that supplies equipment for IWN and some older systems.

“You can’t set up a seven-year program, give it two years funding and then cut it off,” he said. “Where’s the customer, the end-user, the agent or the cop? Where are they in the decision-making process?”

The House budget would cut nearly $70 million from the administration’s 2011 request for $205 million for IWN; the Senate proposal would cut $95 million from it.

A House Republican staffer said the intent of the cut is to “provide enough to operate the existing systems effectively but not to fund new investments.”

“This is an area where the subcommittee chairman, the Appropriations Committee and ultimately the whole House felt savings could be made,” the staffer said. “Everyone had to make sacrifices.”

But a Maryland Democrat said the cuts are penny-wise and pound foolish. “I support budget cuts that are smart and targeted,” Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said.

IWN supporters say it will save money by replacing multiple radio systems, each with its own network of towers and other infrastructure, with a single integrated system.

“Every federal program deserves to be closely reviewed,” Mr. Ruppersberger said. “However, it is critical that our first responders and law enforcement officers can communicate in emergencies, and I worry that antiquated equipment will limit their ability to do that.”

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