I read the other week that an overwhelming number of current members of the House of Representatives were not in office at the time of the last vote on comprehensive immigration reform, and it made me wonder: just how many of them were around a decade ago when the Department of Homeland Security was created? Thanks to the intrepid work of our magnificent intern, Meghan Mitchum, the answer is that only 135 of the 435 current members of the House were in office and voted to create DHS with the passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. (Note: Current U.S. Senators who were members of the House in 2002 are not included in this calculation.)
A few of those 300 “new” House members have started to question whether America should even have a Department of Homeland Security at all, while some want to eliminate only those post-2001 agencies, like the Transportation Security Administration. While I am sure that each of them have their own reasons and are sincere and well-meaning, I believe they are sincerely wrong. Taking my cue from the NYPD/DHS mantra, “If You See Something, Say Something,” it is time to say something constructive about DHS and the people who lead it.
This past Monday, Politico hosted a Playbook breakfast conversation with the three individuals who have served as DHS Secretary since its inception – Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano. Each of them is an outstanding public servant and each of them proved why they were suited for the role the President asked them to assume. But it was former Governor Tom Ridge who addressed – in the straightforward, succinct and compelling manner that his Army Staff Sergeant experience taught him – why America needs a cabinet-level agency to address homeland security issues. When asked by Politico’s Mike Allen about the rumors that the Bush Administration had fought the creation of DHS, Ridge addressed the issue head-on: “Well it is not exactly the narrative with which I’m familiar, but we’ve heard it.”
Ridge went on to give a thorough explanation of the internal process by which DHS was created and was crystal clear that President Bush, early on, sought to address the lack of an “architecture for how you deal with an asymmetric threat, and he observed there was no existing, coordinated structure to deal with “this new threat to our sovereignty and our way of life.”
The need to create a “border-centric” agency without a massive re-organization of the government simply was not going to work because there were too many “rice bowls” that existing agencies tried to protect. President Bush and Congress itself knew that a new approach was required to address a new threat – and the sense of mission drove the creation of a department that had a unity of effort but not the DOD-like ability to have a unity of command, Ridge explained.
Midway through the Politico discussion, Secretary Chertoff talked about the problem of “the subtle encroachment of complacency.” It was an excellent explanation on why we need to adjust to adaptive adversaries and changing risks without eliminating the agency created to address those threats. Chertoff was emphatic that the threats have not gone away – especially the evolving biological and cyber threats that pose increasing concerns. Chertoff was also crystal clear that in a civilian-led government, homeland security could not fall into the mindset of having “one person in charge.” Too few Americans grasp the significance of Chertoff’s explanation and some of them are elected members of Congress.
The current crop of congressional complainers would do well to spend an hour watching the video archive of the three Secretaries’ non-partisan discussion on DHS’ evolving role and mission, assuming, of course, that facts can influence political positions – a separate debate to be sure.
Even so, while I am a firm believer that America needs a Department of Homeland Security, I am also a believer in continuous improvement, and in that respect, congressional oversight should rightfully be focused on asking questions about DHS as it starts its second decade. As Secretary Chertoff pointed out, there are legitimate questions to be asked; here are a few that come to mind.
Let’s start with the workforce issues. Under the leadership of Secretary Ridge, DHS employee morale was high and the sense of mission was paramount. Today, OPM surveys have found that DHS has the lowest employee morale of any cabinet agency and within DHS, the Science and Technology Directorate is at the very bottom. How did that slide occur? What is being done, if anything, to address the issue? Is employee dissatisfaction with DHS having any negative impact on America’s preparedness, safety and security?
Perhaps it is the dysfunctional nature of Congress itself that has prevented Customs and Border Protection (CBP) from having a Senate-confirmed commissioner during President Obama’s administration (because a very good person was proposed and his nomination never came to a vote in the Senate). The fact is that the last confirmed CBP leader was Ralph Basham – who was appointed by President Bush. CBP is the agency with the border security and customs collection mission, and they have been without a confirmed leader for the past four years. This is unconscionable, and the lack of a “sense of urgency” from the White House in filling this position is a situation that needs exploring.
Unfortunately, the CBP Commissioner’s vacancy is not the only unfilled position at DHS. Secretary Napolitano told the Politico Playbook audience that DHS worked closely with other federal agencies, but there have been vacancies in the Intergovernmental Affairs offices for far too long. The Private Sector Office has been virtually non-existent in working with the private sector and is widely viewed as providing more rhetoric than real help. There are so many people in limbo because the word “acting” is in their title and decision making is constrained, I believe.
Further, despite occasional references to the need to build public understanding, DHS officials’ ability to speak to stakeholder groups has been limited by increasingly restrictive requirements from the DHS Public Affairs office. At times, Public Affairs has acted more as a political campaign operation for Secretary Napolitano than as a conduit for building public knowledge of how DHS programs and personnel work. The public confidence in DHS would improve if more DHS officials got out and communicated with the public, upon whom their success depends. Congress should be asking whether this approach advances or detracts from creating confidence in DHS and its mission.
Then there is the recent “DHS 3.0” vision that Secretary Napolitano laid out in a talk at the Brookings Institution. Here is how she described what a future DHS would look like:
“The work we’ve done, I think, provides a stronger foundation than ever to address the inevitable challenges we will face, and an ever-changing threat landscape. And we know that these challenges will evolve, requiring a nimble and flexible response by the Federal government, and by the many partners we engage across the country, and, increasingly, around the world.
“They will require that we continue strengthening our nation’s capabilities to prepare for, respond to and recover from threats and events of all sizes, whether from Mother Nature or those seeking to do us harm. And, I think we must do even more to inform and engage the public in this shared responsibility for our safety and security.
“Agility and resilience. Engagement and integration. These are some of the key principles that will define Homeland Security 3.0.
“We must continue to embed our risk-based approach within everything we do. One key way is by smartly using information and intelligence analysis to allow us to focus our time and energy on people and cargo that pose the greatest risk, and in a manner where we can have the greatest ability to protect these systems. Our goal in supporting a risk-based approach to security is not only to keep our country more secure, but also to facilitate the lawful travel and trade that drives our economic growth.”
If these thoughts sound familiar, and they should, one might wish to look at the publication by CSIS and the Heritage Foundation entitled, “DHS 3.0.” It was written in 2008 by Heritage’s James Carafano and CSIS’ then-Director of and Senior Fellow in the Homeland Security Program, David Heyman. Today, some five years after that report was released, Heyman is the Assistant Secretary for Policy at DHS.
The “old” DHS 3.0 report made 25 recommendations that should be implemented to make DHS a more effective, efficient agency. Congress should be asking current DHS leadership about those 25 recommendations, should know which were implemented and which were not – and why. It should also ascertain the differences between the “new” DHS 3.0 vision articulated by Secretary Napolitano and the “old” DHS 3.0 analysis made by Assistant Secretary Heyman some five years ago. Maybe there is a good reason for those differences, but it bears inquiry and explanation.
Finally, there is the challenge of DHS acquisition and procurement. Just this week, the DHS Industry Day (set for March 18) was abruptly canceled. Procurements that were released to allow DHS to meet operational demands languish in the DHS bureaucracy for far too long – EAGLE II has been under review for more than two years after bidders’ responses were submitted. Although the reasons for the delay may be understandable, it hardly helps DHS components meet their mission needs to have a two-year gap between an RFP release and a DHS decision. Congress should be asking a lot of detailed questions that it has largely ignored except for a few notable high-profile exceptions.
When it comes to DHS, I am a huge supporter. I believe in its’ mission. I believe DHS fills a role that no other federal agency can or does fill. I also believe it must adapt and improve. The current leadership must find a way to instill trust in those who will help make it successful – its employees, contractors, authorizers, appropriators and, most importantly, its customers – the American people.
The threat to America is real, present and patient. Suggesting that DHS should go away after its first ten years is ridiculously naive and, I believe, dangerous. But it must change its methods and messages if it is going to survive another ten years. Today is a good day to start.