Following his testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee where he testified about chemical security, DHS Under Secretary Rand Beers met with national security bloggers for an “on the record” session hosted by the Heritage Foundation. It was a remarkably refreshing session – not only because Beers acknowledged the importance of reaching out to a wide range of critical thinkers (which occasionally includes bloggers), but also because he was characteristically candid. Would that other DHS officials followed his lead.

Beers gave a brief overview of issues involving the QHSR, the Christmas Day aviation bombing attempt and cyber security, then he opened the floor to questions – and those questions covered a wide range of topics.

I would summarize his responses as follows:

  • The key failing in detecting the Christmas Day attack was “a failure of analysis.”
  • It is a misimpression to suggest that DHS is focused solely on aviation security because serious efforts have been made to detect and prevent attacks on soft targets, such as hotels.
  • DHS is mindful of the security needed for high profile events, such as the pending trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and is working closely with other federal and state/local agencies to provide a secure venue.
  • Cyber security is a core mission of DHS, and there needs to be greater coordination among federal agencies. Identification of the actual “attacker” is always a problem, due to the nature of a cyber attack.
  • Dealing with information sharing issues on a global basis, particularly with the EU Parliament and the EC, has been difficult (passenger name record information is one example). Yet, we live in a global system and need global information sharing.
  • In order for information sharing to work well, data must be put into the system in the first place (e.g., A stolen passport registry only works if information about stolen passports is available for others to access).
  • International aviation carriers and airports may need assistance in upgrading screening technologies and techniques, and that is why Secretary Napolitano sought to work with IATA and ICAO.
  • DHS and the Department of Energy have a partnership to develop new screening technologies, but not all threats can be detected and with any event there is no absolute security.

In response to my question about what constitutes an “act of terrorism” in the event of a cyber attack — something that is currently the subject of a public debate with regard to the physical attacks at Fort Hood and the Austin, TX general aviation pilot’s suicide attack on an IRS office — Beers expressed his opinion that it might hinge on whether there were “nation state actions.”

The question is not merely academic. As one example, the SAFETY Act does not apply unless there has been an “act of terrorism” as determined by the DHS Secretary. Further, many general liability insurance policies exclude coverage for acts of terrorism and “acts of war.”

It was clear to me that the subject was one that Beers had contemplated previously, but he was not yet ready to make public his opinion…and maybe he can’t. Perhaps this definition can only be given after an event has occurred because there are political overtones to such a determination, not just legal and semantic boundaries.

I’m not sure that this Administration is ready to provide a clear line of demarcation between malicious activity, espionage, criminal behavior and acts of terrorism. But it is a discussion worth pursuing, and I hope others will take up the issue, much as Jessica Herrera-Flanigan did in her recent posting to HLS Watch. The ancillary issues, such as risk mitigation and insurance coverage, are ones that should command serious private sector attention.

Secretary Beers comments emphasized why we are fortunate that someone with his experience, intellect and candor is working to protect us from dangerous people and dangerous things.

It also served to remind me, at least, of why many observers believe Beers would be an ideal candidate to become DHS Secretary should Janet Napolitano leave the position.

Sadly, given the track record this past year of the White House Personnel Office in filling vacant DHS positions, I don’t have a lot of hope that someone with Rand Beers’ qualifications would even be considered by them…and that would be a shame, because he is a knowledgeable, deep thinker and is willing to speak candidly.

Heritage and Beers earned special kudos. They have my thanks for holding this session.

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