If you’re like me, you no doubt are back at work trying to get restarted on your ‘To Do’ list following the Holiday Break. While shaking off the fog, hustle and break from the office of the past several weeks, you may have missed some pretty big things that have occurred in the homeland security world. Some of these items will have some far reaching ramifications for the incoming Obama Administration as it takes the reigns of the federal government in just under three weeks.

DHS’ Publication of a Federal Register Notice for the Private Sector Preparedness Accreditation and Certification Program

For those who have followed the issue of DHS’ Private Sector voluntary preparedness efforts, December 24th brought an early Christmas present when DHS finally released its long-discussed and long-captive Federal Register Notice on the Private Sector Preparedness Accreditation and Certification Program. Known to many as the Title IX effort (because that’s the section of the 9/11 Recommendations Act, [Pub. L. No. 110-53, 121] establishing the voluntary program), this announcement has been a long time coming. Ever since the 9/11 Commission issued its Final Report endorsing the American National Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs (NFPA 1600) as a National Preparedness Standard, the discussion and debate about private sector preparedness has grown considerably.

There are many in the private sector who see the recently enacted legislation under Title IX as another creeping set of regulations that will be imposed upon businesses.

On the other side of the debate are those companies that ascribe to private sector preparedness standards and guidelines as part of their regular business operations.

Regardless of whose side you’re on, the fact that companies and organizations of all sizes and types are discussing their preparedness is a great thing. It is a conversation that can only further benefit the resiliency of the nation.

House Chairmen Entering the FEMA Octagon

While it may lack the brutal drama of three rounds in the UFC Octagon, whenever you get Congressional Committee Chairman facing off against each other over jurisdiction or some other contentious issue, it promises to be exciting, especially for us Beltway types. This particular battle has implications far beyond the Beltway as it is over the future of FEMA and whether it remains as part of DHS.

On one side of the ring is 18-term Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar who is Chairman of the House’s Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, one of the most powerful committees in Congress. In a December 17th Memo to President-elect Obama, Chairman Oberstar argues that FEMA should be removed from DHS and be a Cabinet-level agency reporting directly to the President.

On the other side of the ring is 9-term Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson who serves as Chairman of the House’s Homeland Security Committee, its newest committee. In response to Oberstar’s Memo, Chairman Thompson issued one of his own on December 19th to President-Elect Obama calling for FEMA to remain part of DHS as part of an integrated and cohesive homeland security structure.

It’s not unusual for there to be differing opinions in Congress, but to have two Committee Chairman (of the same political party) square off publicly like this is unusual. Stay tuned. The bell is about to ring (and I’m in a full-throated roar cheering for Thompson in this fight).

Chertoff’s Best Speech

DHS Sec. Chertoff will never be remembered as one of Washington’s most stirring or passionate orators, but he gave by far the best speech of his nearly four year tenure at Georgetown University on December 18th. In delivering his reflections on the Department’s accomplishments in 2008, Chertoff went the extra mile to deliver one of the most thoughtful and analytical assessments about our national approach to homeland security.

Every Cabinet Secretary can deliver the perfunctory speech about what their department does and the difference it makes, but Sec. Chertoff had the fortune of being able to take his listeners back to the days prior to 9/11 to show them how we did business ‘before,’ and how we needed to dramatically adjust in the ‘after.’ He did the same when reflecting upon the events surrounding the much maligned Katrina response.

His fortune (or mis-fortune as some might call it) was that he was there in key roles in both circumstances. History will judge every one and every event over time, but in listening to his speech, the often quoted line of George Santayana, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” came to mind.

As the Secretary shared the history and lessons he experienced in his Georgetown remarks, I couldn’t help but feel he was reading the Transition Memo/Letter that he had written to his designated successor (but has kept private). His candor about those particular situations, the painful lessons learned and the remedies that were employed were delivered succinctly and without any hesitation or regret.

All too often when political transitions are underway, we are so excited about the new person(s) and ideas coming onboard that we overlook the offered words and lessons of those who have been there and are exiting their positions of authority. It would be a tremendous mistake for anyone on the Obama Team, particularly DHS Sec.-nominee Napolitano and those who are part of her team, to overlook what Sec. Chertoff offered in his December remarks.

Furthermore, I would hope the people and forces that are part of the FEMA Independence Movement would sit down and really read what was offered in this speech. They might just realize that turning back the clock to another day and construct is not what FEMA, DHS or the American public really needs to secure the homeland

The Cluelessness of the New Republic

Contrasting the value and worth of Chertoff’s remarks is Jeffrey Rosen’s article in the December 24, 2008 edition of the New Republic, ‘Man-Made Disaster.’ My first read of this article had me in fits, especially when he called DHS a “more-than-$40-billion-dollar-a-year-pacifier;” and stated that “DHS officials inevitably feel pressure to exaggerate the terrorist threat;” and “the department is hard to justify with any rational analysis of costs and benefits.”

While I may not have liked the article, there were a few points of value that Rosen offered, including his recognition of the continuing problem of Congressional oversight of DHS; the challenges associated with cargo screening mandates, as well as his very last paragraph on the need for improved self-reliance and resiliency. Those points aside, the fact that Rosen sees the Department’s moves and actions in the post-9/11 and post-Katrina world as simply ‘theater,’ just reinforces the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ mantra when it comes doing the mission of homeland security.

I’m someone who believes DHS’ actions (as well as those of other public and private sector members) are not theater but rather necessary steps to secure what we have from all types of threats, conditions and hazards. Not all of the actions we taken have made me happy (I’d like to keep my shoes on at the airport, thank you), but I’d rather be momentarily inconvenienced than risk my life or that of my family’s to someone trying to commit an unimaginable act with a plane again.

All of the actions we have taken in the name of homeland security merit consideration and vigorous debate, but pooh-poohing them as psychological theater as Rosen describes is a slap in the face to the men and women who put their lives on the line every day in jobs large and small to protect our nation.

I’m sure he will find ABC’s TV Series, Homeland Security USA to only reinforce his low opinion of what DHS has been doing for the past five years. It’s my hope that audiences will see what these people do as valuable and see charges of theater for what they are – ‘clueless.’

Something the Secret Service Cannot Stop

While each of the items I’ve mentioned over the Holiday period were all of a serious nature we did find out one other important fact about our nation’s homeland security operations.

For all of the incredible pressure, professionalism and performance that the US Secret Service execute daily in protecting our nation’s executive leadership, we found that there is one threat that they can not protect against – and I’m not talking thrown shoes.

As evidenced by the blizzard of Internet posted photos from their Hawaiian vacation, the Obama family and in particular, our soon to be Commander in Chief, was found to be caught in the cross-hairs of the paparazzi who never stopped taking shots of him.

With coverage like this, it’s going to be a very interesting four years.

Happy New Year to all.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More