A Long-Term Vision for Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security is at a crossroads. Now six years old, DHS is under new management, and, like its cabinet siblings, the department is undergoing a head-to-toe reevaluation of its current programs, priorities, and resource allocation. Its capable new leader, Secretary Janet Napolitano, faces a daunting management challenge. DHS is large, complex, and still in its adolescence: It does many things well with appropriate supervision, but is still better at individual tactics than integrated strategy.

Making the Department of Homeland Security think and act more strategically will require a change of mindset and risk calculation within DHS; better long-range planning across the federal government; and broader engagement with state and local authorities and the private sector.

Emphasize long-term sustainability

DHS must move past its perpetual state of emergency and shift its emphasis to long-term sustainability. This means shifting its priority from containing the crisis of the moment—first terrorism, then hurricanes, and most recently illegal immigrants—to implementing a strategy of genuine risk management. What is important? What improves our security and resiliency? And what can be done at a reasonable social and financial cost?

DHS must not only have the right policies, but it must also execute them sensibly. As an agency formed in the wake of 9/11, the department’s approach to security thus far has been to prevent bad things from happening, regardless of the costs. Success in meeting new challenges will require DHS to promote smart security that can be sustained over the long term, and to become less risk averse.

One recent incident reveals how far the agency has to go. In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama proclaimed “a new way forward” in U.S. relations with the Muslim world. And yet, less than a week later, a Pakistani citizen with a valid U.S. visa who was affiliated with the non-profit Search for Common Ground was denied entry at Dulles Airport in Chantilly, VA. Customs and Border Protection agents judged him to be an “intending immigrant” despite having a spouse and three children in Pakistan. The practices of DHS’ Customs and Border Protection contradicted the stated policies of the United States—to support Islamic moderates and build stronger relations with a critical ally, Pakistan, in the battle of ideas against political extremism.

To help avoid further incidents, DHS must define its purpose in positive terms—facilitating trade, travel, and legal migration; building resiliency within vital global networks and systems; improving community-based preparedness and information-sharing; and promoting global health. Strictly defining success as the absence of the negative—there hasn’t been a terrorist attack in seven years so we must be doing something right—will blunt any efforts to adapt to a changing risk environment. And the security we have will come at too high a cost.

Improve long-range planning

The Pentagon has a system in place that assesses the nature of warfare 10-15 years in the future, identifies the military’s requirements, budgets several years at a time, and then develops and deploys appropriate systems and technologies to enable mission accomplishment. The system is far from perfect, but it is broadly effective. On a smaller scale, DHS has to create its vision of the future and a path to get there.

Just as the military is adapting its forces trained for large conventional battles to complete urban counterinsurgency operations, the federal government must decide how much of homeland security’s resources should be devoted to terrorism, natural disasters, or pandemics. If we have a dollar to spend, do we protect an airport, subway, or water system, or reinforce a levee? Is the next attack likely to involve a improvised bomb or malicious computer code? Difficult choices must be made, and DHS must stay ahead of evolving threats. Political extremism represents a danger, but so does global warming, which is expected to amplify the kind of extreme weather conditions we have seen in recent years.

Central to this analysis will be execution of the first Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, a major interagency and intergovernmental assessment led by DHS and due to Congress by the end of the year. Through the QHSR, the Obama administration must redefine homeland security, and then identify specific missions, policies, programs, and tools necessary to succeed.

DHS currently preaches an all-hazards approach to risk management. In the future it must practice what it preaches. Terrorism remains our most immediate concern, but is only one of several challenges DHS should address. Secretary Napolitano seemed to imply this direction when she did not include the word “terrorism” in her opening statement at a House hearing last month. Structuring DHS as an all-hazards agency also means that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should remain part of the department, and not split off as some have proposed.

Adopt an integrated approach to homeland security

In an interdependent global environment, there are no longer bright lines that separate the foreign from the domestic or the public from the private. National security and homeland security overlap. The soldier in Afghanistan is trying to locate and defeat the next terrorist plot, but so is the cop in New York City. Our strategy is self-defeating if we are adding forces on one front while subtracting forces on the other. Likewise, the safety and security of the global food supply rest on robust and responsible action by both governments and private corporations; what government calls food safety, the private sector calls product assurance.

Integrated structures at the federal level are critical to our security. At the White House, this means integrating the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council and their respective staffs. The White House must lead the interagency effort with more effective planning and action by all cabinet departments, from traditional security players such as Defense, State, Justice, and the intelligence community to newer actors in this realm such as Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress must also do its part by improving and streamlining oversight.

Federal agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector must all build stronger relationships with one another. The federal government, particularly DHS, must provide better information and analysis to state-run fusion centers in real time. Particularly important during the current economic crisis is that the federal government must provide substantial support to state and local authorities so that critical capabilities—police, fire, medical, emergency management, public health—that have improved in recent years can be sustained.

DHS must also continue to improve its cooperation with the private sector. In critical areas where the risk is most significant, federal regulation of private markets is appropriate. Transportation and nuclear and chemical security are perfect examples. In other areas that are more dynamic, the federal government must set broad national standards, but allow the private sector to find innovative ways to achieve them. The government doesn’t need to tell corporations like Wal-Mart what to do. But if the government and Wal-Mart have an effective and trusting relationship, they will manage any system disruption regardless of the cause in ways that reduce the economic impact and promote rapid recovery.

In the Obama administration’s first 50 days in office, the economy has understandably overshadowed almost every other policy area. But the strategic decisions the administration makes this year will shape the domestic security environment for the next decade. If done well, new policies will guide Homeland Security through its growing years and shape it into an effective agency.

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P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow and director of homeland security and Lindsey Ross is a researcher at the Center for American Progress.