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The Aspen Institute has long had a reputation for bringing some of the world’s most prominent and distinguished leaders together to reflect on any number of issues. Their annual Ideas Festival makes international headlines with some of the reflections offered by current and former world leaders, business executives, and other noteworthy people. In addition, their Aspen Security Forum, now in its second year, is a program not to be missed. After having been a part of my fair share of homeland security types of conferences and symposiums, I have no qualms in saying their program is the best I’ve ever attended.

When the Institute does something, they do it exceptionally well, and that is why the announcement last week that they have formally established the Aspen Homeland Security Group is even more reason for optimism about thinking and scholarship on homeland issues. Their membership is literally a “who’s who” on homeland issues. It is bipartisan and has all of the key names you can think of, given the nuances and intricacies that are homeland issues.

At its formal launch last week at their Washington Offices, they hosted current DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, her predecessor at DHS, Michael Chertoff, and the President & CEO of the Wilson Center, former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman. The conversation they had was a good one and is worth watching, but something stood out to me at the event.

It was mentioned that this group would be available to DHS Secretary Napolitano and her successors to obtain strategic counsel on a range of matters. She certainly could not have asked for a better “kitchen cabinet” of people to talk to or meet with and that unfortunately is where there is a problem.

When DHS was created, one of the things it had established along side of it was a Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC). Appointed by the President, its membership would be composed of people from around the country who are familiar with a range of public and private sector homeland issues who could advise the DHS Secretary and the Department’s leadership on a range of issues. Like the Aspen Institute’s newly established group, it also is made up a “who’s who” of distinguished people.

Since its start under then-DHS Sec. Ridge, the HSAC has provided a range of reports and counsel to him, Chertoff and now Napolitano. Having interacted with several different HSAC members under all three DHS Secretaries, each has taken great pride in their respective appointments and work but also expressed their frustrations that they could not do more to assist the Department’s leadership. Some have also expressed frustration that they were not used more and in some cases they felt outright ignored by the Department’s executive leadership. I’m sure that’s a condition that every senior advisory council feels in some shape or form, but the HSAC has to operate under a completely different set of rules than any other advisory body outside the government.

As a federally constituted advisory body, they have to operate under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which governs: how their meetings are announced; how they structured; when they occur; whether the meeting is open or closed to the public; how its findings are shared; and so forth. In short, FACA is one of those bureaucratic mechanisms that every federal department or agency has to follow if it wants to have a meeting where it is seeking public input from any type government-sanctioned body.

For all of its public-sunshine law benefits, FACA is also a four-letter word for anyone who has ever had to deal with it. It’s a true pain in the neck because if you’re trying to seek some genuine counsel and guidance, FACA is a guaranteed way to make sure you won’t get it.

Additionally, the Obama Administration has done a yeoman’s job of demonizing any interchange between professional groups (e.g., trade associations) and the Executive Branch by cutting off any type of meaningful exchanges of views from diverse parties. Branding them as lobbyists and special interests and painting them as pariahs at every given opportunity has really cut this Administration off from getting counsel from some corners it has desperately needed. The Obama Administration has even prohibited current or one-time lobbyists, regardless of their skills and expertise, from even serving on any of its federal advisory committees. (Some could argue that the Administration’s flailing job performance and sagging poll numbers are the results of these short-sighted actions, but that’s someone else’s blog post to write.)

People are always more than willing to give you a piece of their mind on an issue, but if they have to do it in a public forum where it could be published for all to see, they may not be willing to give you the candor you really need. People will always speak with greater candor if they can do so privately or without risk of full public display. While FACA does have provisions where it can hold private meetings, the requirements for it are truly onerous and problematic. That is just one of many reasons federally constituted advisory groups do not have the strengths they might otherwise possess.

It’s for reasons such as this that a private group like the Aspen Institute and others prove to be of such value. While the Secretary, her staff and the Department’s leadership have to be extra-ordinarily careful to not call these groups “advisory bodies,” they can impart wisdom and insight that Napolitano and her successors are often looking to access on complex problems. Since the Administration has dramatically curtailed the composition of its advisory bodies and is truly shackled by FACA from getting true value-added candor, I can’t blame Sec. Napolitano one minute if she gets together with a group such as what Aspen has created.

In one of the most demanding and thankless jobs in Washington (if the not the nation and the world), those are resources in short supply for any DHS Secretary that they can have that are truly private. Truth be told, if Secretary Napolitano, her predecessors and her subsequent successors wanted the advice of any distinguished expert, she (or they) could pick up the phone and be patched into them within minutes, and the advice would be given with pleasure (as well as absolute discretion). Getting it from a distinguished group such as Aspen has assembled is just another resource that is maturing out of the greater homeland security community. With any luck (and strategic planning), she’ll be able to use them (and other groups) to help her do a job that is by no measure easy. It’s an ability that for all of their noble and intended purposes, the Obama Administration’s recently imposed rules have completely undermined.

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