Homeland Security at Five Years

Experts gather to discuss growth of the DHS, the upcoming presidential transition, and unaddressed challenges.


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“What we owe … is to give the public freedom from fear,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee at a Center for American Progress Action Fund event yesterday. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security commemorated its fifth anniversary. And nine months from now, the homeland security apparatus put in place after the September 11 attacks will undertake its first-ever presidential transition.

“When the bad people show up, they don’t ask party affiliation or anything else,” Thompson said, highlighting the need for bi-partisan collaboration both within the committee and the Department of Homeland Security as a whole. As such, the transition in 2009 to a new president is of utmost importance to the committee and will be a focal point of their planning now and through the summer.

Several key challenges face the Department of Homeland Security through the transition and the next presidency. The U.S.-Mexico border, chemical plan security, preparedness, diversity, civil liberties, and the color-coding alert system are all critical. Some of these challenges have been hampered by inadequate funding; in fact, the most recent budget request significantly cut state-level funding, with funding for firefighters being cut 50 percent from the previous year. Other issues require greater communication between departments, states, and local entities, or the public and its representatives.

“Homeland Security, it seems to me, is a little bit in the eye of the beholder,” P.J. Crowley, Senior Fellow and Director of Homeland Security at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and Author of “Safe at Home,” said at the panel discussion following Chairman Thompson’s remarks. “There are mixed metrics. We have not suffered an attack since 9/11, but we also witnessed a dysfunctional response to an unprecedented but not unanticipated natural disaster after Hurricane Katrina.”

Crowley identified five challenges for the next administration: determining the actual capabilities of terrorists who are intent on striking the U.S. homeland; setting priorities in terms of types of risk and critical infrastructure; defining homeland security in terms of broader potential hazards, not just terrorism; making the necessary investments so that capabilities within federal, state, and local governments, and the private sector match security requirements and public expectations; and how to maintain sustainable security while remaining faithful to our laws and values.

The 9/11 Commission called for a “creative information-sharing environment” which would use the eyes and ears of the local first preventers to react to potential terrorist and pre-terrorist activity, said Barbara A. Grewe, Senior Policy Advisor at the MITRE Corporation and former Senior Counsel for Special Projects of the 9/11 Commission. Getting the right information to the “cop on the beat” is key.

An emerging and helpful capability are independent state and local “fusion centers,” 50 of which have already been created. While they face challenges with funding and training, these centers hold tremendous future potential. To make them work, there needs to be a cultural change from “ownership” of information to “stewardship of information,” Grewe said.

Daniel B. Prieto, Senior Fellow for Homeland Security and Intelligence at IBM’s Global Leadership Initiative, encouraged the next administration to focus on strengthening management at the Department of Homeland Security, building a deeper “bench” of security professionals and developing a long-term homeland security doctrine that revolves around the concept of “resiliency.”

Prieto encouraged reform within Congress, where 86 committees and subcommittees claim some jurisdiction. But he cautioned that constant organization and reorganization would not solve the homeland security challenges we face. “We have to stop stirring the pot,” he said, and instead concentrate on the complexity of global networks and innovation rather than bureaucracy.

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