Last week, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff delivered the fourth in a series of talks he has planned following the 5th anniversary of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. This one focused on critical infrastructure protection. While there did not appear to be much of anything new, it gave Chertoff an opportunity to provide a high-level discussion of DHS’s approach to CI/KR protection and an opportunity for him to chide Congress for its approach to cargo security. In the course of his talk Chertoff did something very few Cabinet Secretaries do – he committed candor. It was refreshing.

Chertoff’s best lines came when he contrasted what he called the old 20th Century “Soviet style heavy regulation lots of visible people in uniforms, lots of very specific mandates from government, all of which are designed to assure that the people who own and operate the infrastructure are protecting you,” with the new 21st Century “partnership” model where the government’s role is “focused on cooperation and stakeholder input. It’s based on the recognition that most businesses are very keenly aware of their personal incentive to maintain security and to protect their own assets and employees.”

Chertoff was essentially telling Congress, and particularly Rep. Ed “Inspect Every Container” Markey (D-MA), that their approach would no longer work in today’s global economy.

Chertoff also spent some time talking about the lessons he has learned in dealing with DHS as an “all hazards” agency. He talked about the serious need to invest in infrastructure maintenance and upkeep, giving particular attention to the levees in the Sacramento Valley as ones where local concerns have overridden national interests. He also, as might have been expected, talked about the situation in New Orleans where in a post-Katrina environment, the US Army Corps of Engineers had finally built a flood gate that had been proposed for many years but was opposed by some vocal and powerful local interests. Chertoff tried to make the case that in some places, “the good of the whole” outweighed local concerns. It was as if the Secretary had read and agreed with Steve Flynn’s position in his most recent book, The Edge of Disaster.

While I am certain that the Libertarians would take great issue with the position Secretary Chertoff laid out, so I suspect would their political opposites – the big government, NIMBY political forces in Arlington County, Virginia who are adamantly opposed to the widening of Interstate 66 – a major evacuation route in the event of a catastrophic event in the District of Columbia. At some point this issue is going to need to be addressed before this political game of, as Secretary Chertoff called it, “musical chairs” comes to the end of the tune.

One problem that Chertoff did not address was how to square his ideas on the need for adequate funding for road, bridge, dam and other critical infrastructure maintenance and operations (labeling them as a “homeland security” issue) with the need to consolidate Congressional oversight of DHS issues into fewer committees. Jurisdiction (on the authorizing side, at least) on these issues is largely held by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and the Senate’s Commerce Committee. If these truly ARE homeland security issues, perhaps Chertoff might be able to reach out to the members of these Committees and see if they agree with his approach.

On the plus side, Chertoff also talked about the way the SAFETY Act has worked as a positive example of how his 21st Century Partnership model should work. It was the first time in a while that Chertoff has mentioned the SAFETY Act, and he was right to highlight it as an example of how DHS has worked to balance public protection and private sector concerns. It is a good news story – and it needs to be told more often.

The next administration will inherit a Department of Homeland Security that has been, in many ways, as dysfunctional as the reputation it developed in its infancy, largely through no fault of its own. It will also inherit a department that has done a huge number of things right – and for that the Congressional tendency to meddle and “fix” things that are not broken should be discouraged by both presidential campaigns. FEMA does not need to be moved out of DHS. The SAFETY Act should not be “reformed” again. ICE and CBP do not need to be merged.

There are issues that do need to be addressed and Chertoff’s speech has started the debate. These include:

o One Hundred Percent Cargo Container inspection does NOT add to security.

o Port of Entry wait times need to be significantly shortened. Criminal Aliens need to be deported when they have served their sentence.

o E-Verify needs to work better; and,

o TSA needs to either go forward with Secure Flight or tell all of its stakeholders what it plans as an alternative.

As Secretary Chertoff pointed out on Friday, we have come a long way, but this journey is not yet complete, if it ever can be. There will be many distractions along the way – some of them man-made and some occurrences of nature. Both kinds can have serious negative consequences of a personal and economic nature unless, that is, we are adequately prepared to respond and recover quickly. Chertoff’s message on Friday was that we are better prepared than at any time in our history – and we have much more work to do.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More