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On the Cusp of Another 9/11 Anniversary

As I sit in an airplane this morning, having departed Washington DC before sunrise, I cannot help but think about what airline passengers must have been thinking 12 years ago this week. I want to believe they had the same kind of thoughts about news, sports and family that I heard expressed by people this morning as we boarded. Yet, one big difference between then and now must have been that before September 11, 2001, almost no one was talking about security, or so my mind wants to assume.

With the Syrian debate fueling 24-hour news coverage and the potential domestic implications of whatever occurs overseas never far from our thoughts, I can’t help but wonder about the lessons this past dozen years have taught us.

September is National Preparedness Month, and as the Ready.gov messages have appeared with increasing frequency over the past days, I believe (dare I say, “know”) that we are better prepared than ever before to deal with another catastrophic event – whether created by terrorists, weather or human negligence. The resilience of a community like Boston, the efficient mobilization of California fire fighters, and the recently released Hurricane Sandy Report are all a testament to America’s current ability to respond and recover from a “bad day” event.

Frankly, I believe the American people are more prepared to deal with adversity than the Obama administration gives them credit for, given the rhetoric from the White House of late.

Or perhaps I am completely wrong. What else (other than incompetence) could explain the failure of this Administration to fill the multitude of vacant and dual-hatted positions in DHS leadership? Perhaps this White House believes that federal leadership is less important than local officials being responsible for their own localities. Major disaster sites are wonderful photo-op venues, aren’t they?

Secretary Napolitano’s exit talks last week highlighted the problems DHS has in dealing with an adversary who can act with great nimbleness and agility. It is a decade-long lament. Shortly after the Department stood up in 2003, I remember reading a quote: “You can’t do Homeland Security at the speed of bureaucracy.”

Secretary Napolitano’s observation, especially with addressing cyber threats, is absolutely correct. Yet, during her tenure, the Department’s ability to act quickly got worse instead of better. Perhaps she tried to make things move more quickly through the system, but a Cabinet Secretary is often judged more on results than effort, and Napolitano leaves DHS with a mixed-bag of successes and frustrations.

To return to the bigger issue, the Department has been at the mercy of the White House, and nowhere has there been a greater concern than in the seeming lack of urgency in filling vacant positions. Last week, the White House announced the intent to appoint Dr. Huban Gowadia to lead the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO). The press release noted that Dr. Gowadia had been the acting director since June 2012 and the Deputy Director for a significant period of time before that. No one that I know would question Dr. Gowadia’s qualifications for the position. Maybe there were other qualified candidates too. Even so, it is unconscionable for the White House to take 15 months to make a decision about such an important position. And the DNDO position is just one of nearly 20 DHS openings that deserve effective, full-time leadership but don’t have it.

Perhaps the President will use the 9/11 anniversary week to announce his intentions to fill the many DHS vacancies. Perhaps the President will start by nominating a new DHS Secretary, now that Secretary Napolitano has departed. Perhaps the President will see the necessity of showing that international security issues are linked to domestic security issues and devote some of his time (and political capital) to plugging the holes in the DHS org chart.

Perhaps…

But “perhaps” means there is uncertainty and, in this case, uncertainty conveys a sense of vulnerability. Especially in light of the debate about what to do (if anything) about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, on this eve of the 9/11 anniversary, America needs to feel less vulnerable and more confident.

An anniversary is always a time to reflect on the past and plan for the future, but we need more than that. As President Obama is likely to say in his Tuesday night national address, America must take action. Is it too much to ask that, concerning DHS, the President follow his own advice?

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