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Napolitano's State of the Homeland Address

As the greater DC area was still recovering from “Thunder-slop 2011,” George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI) had the honor of hosting DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano for what was billed as the First Annual Homeland Security Address. I have to confess I found this intriguing, given that the first two DHS Secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff had been hosted by HSPI on previous occasions to deliver similar types of remarks. Regardless, it was great to have the current Secretary come out and engage the public, and in particular, members of the GWU student body to talk about what’s happening in the homeland and at DHS. What was most refreshing was that the Secretary came out and gave a speech completely different from the one that many of us have heard over the past two years. It was great not to hear about the various pillars of the Department and what DHS’ mission is all about.

Napolitano, like her predecessors, has had to give the DHS 101 speech so often that many of us could probably deliver it verbatim from memory. I don’t fault her for communicating what DHS is about, but at this point, nearly ten years after September 11, if people haven’t figured out what the Department’s mission is, they’ve probably been living under a rock and are in need of greater guidance and assistance than her remarks could possibly provide. All of us have heard the boilerplate words of “shared responsibility,” “national mission” and so forth to the point that we’ve started to think of them as obligatory words on the Bingo card that must be included in any speech on DHS and homeland security. Those same words were used again (and several times) during her remarks, but Napolitano’s enthusiasm this time seemed to come across much stronger.

Maybe because it was a fresh speech, or maybe it was that she is about to venture out to a number of college and university campuses in the coming weeks to engage in what she described as a greater dialogue with the next generation of homeland security policy developers, program managers, law enforcement professionals and so forth. Whatever the reason, it was clear the Secretary has a new passion for delivering her remarks.

As polished as she may have been in presenting new material, her remarks were remarkably devoid of anything groundbreaking. It was already known that she was going to sweep away the oft-maligned color-coded Threat Advisory System, so that surprise was already out of the bag. If there is any real news here, it’s that it took her and the Department so ridiculously long to make this decision public. The bipartisan task force examining these issues concluded more than a year ago that the color-coded system needed to go away and gave her the green light on what to do. She had all the cover in the world to make the necessary changes. Furthermore, since DHS’ relationships with other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have matured from the early days of the color-coded threat advisory system, the Department has done a much better job of sharing threat information, be it warning about explosive toner cartridges, insulated mugs or other suspect items.

Maybe I’m just being picky here, but is it really breaking news if you’ve already been doing this activity for the past several months? I’m happy to give credit where it’s due, but it took the Department far too long to announce what it has been doing, providing further evidence of the on-going analysis paralysis that seems to be gripping DHS of late.

Maybe that’s the reason I found the Secretary’s remarks devoid of the details that so many of us are anxious to hear. For all of the new language and statistics on counterterrorism, the rising threat of domestic extremism, border security and the need for critical R&D, we still have no clearer picture of how things are going to be in 2011 than before she walked onto the stage to deliver her remarks.

If your measure of a successful “State of the Homeland Security Address” is your boss’ “State of the Union Address,” the Secretary did remarkably well, because that speech was solid on new words and descriptions, but remarkably short on specifics too.

When pressed by a student questioner as to the R&D priorities of the Department, given the difficult national budget situation and what items might have to be pushed aside for higher priority action, the Secretary was quick to point out that she would not pre-empt the release of the details in the President’s forthcoming budget. She may have only been in DC for two years, but the Secretary knows how the game is played. Budgets, regardless of their size and complexity, give you the details of what you really want to know. From cancelling programs, reprogramming dollars to do different things and realigning the deck chairs to be in the order the Secretary wants, the budget is what ultimately tells you the real State of Homeland Security. Until that is released, we have a fine set of remarks describing how things are going, but we still do not definitively know where we will be or why we will be headed there.

One thing I was glad to see the Secretary do was call out the service of the various people working the multiple missions the Department owns. Few Cabinet Secretaries have an inbox like Napolitano’s, where border work, passenger/cargo screening, disaster response, and more are all happening at the same time, and the Secretary is answerable to all of it. I thought she paid particular attention to TSA and that especially pleased me after the President’s callous and flippant slam of “pat-downs” during his State of the Union remarks.

On Tuesday night, as he was pitching his high-speed rail initiative, President Obama offered what I’m sure was a joke to play up to the crowd and viewing public that you could avoid a “pat-down” by having these projects become a reality. When I heard him say that, I couldn’t believe he could be so flippant. Given that it took the Administration three tries to get a TSA Administrator; a guy tried to blow up a plane with his explosive underoos during Obama’s 2009 Hawaiian Christmas holiday vacation; DHS had to work triple time to communicate the reasons behind the enhanced screening measures and pat-down procedure after the whole “don’t touch my junk” episode went viral; and the day before the State of the Union remarks, suicide bomber(s) entered a Moscow airport and killed 35 people and injured over 150 others, I’d say that was a really stupid thing to say, Mr. President.

I know that TSA personnel in the leadership and staff positions were not to pleased to be the butt of a joke about what they do to try and keep people safe. Can you imagine the outrage if the joke had been about U.S. military service personnel? Unfortunately, people don’t think too highly of TSA and what they do to keep the homeland safe and that’s a damn shame. They’ve got a rotten job, but they’ve stepped up to do it, and some respect from the President of the United States is certainly due to them.

While the Secretary never addressed this issue or the President’s “dissing” of TSOs, hearing her talk with pride about the work they and the other DHS employees do was something she clearly enjoys. Who can blame her? Her predecessors felt the same way. I’m hoping that she will continue to defend them from some of the stupid things that people say and not remain silent as she did when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi called ICE Agents “un-American” and questioned their “value system.” It’s obvious she is growing into the position and becoming more comfortable with it. That’s good for all of us.

Secretary Napolitano justified scrapping the color-coded threat advisory system because it was too vague and didn’t offer any real information to the public. I wish she had adopted the same reasoning in talking about where she wants to lead the Department. It will be even better when we can get details on what our partner in this “shared responsibility” is going to do.

Rich Cooper blog 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