In the first seven months of this year, there was one persistent mantra in every speech by Sec. Michael Chertoff: the idea that DHS needed to adopt a “risk-based approach” to everything that it did, including the prioritization of funding and management of resources. The idea was introduced during a speech at GWU in March – the word ‘risk’ or ‘risks’ appears 25 times. It became a constant refrain in nearly every other speech he made that spring; for example, in these speeches at the Fire Services Dinner (8 times), NYU (14 times), and CSIS (8 times). The core of the idea, from the NYU speech:
Risk management is fundamental to managing the threat, while retaining our quality of life and living in freedom. Risk management can guide our decision-making as we examine how we can best organize to prevent, protect against, respond and recover from an attack.
The concept of a risk-based approach was a critical theme in the Second-Stage Review announcement in July; in his prepared remarks at the Reagan Building to announce 2SR, ‘risk’ and ‘risks’ appear 17 times.
Then two things happened. The first was minor: some absolutely truthful but politically insensitive remarks to an AP reporter on the risk equation of the transit security threat:
”The truth of the matter is, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people. When you start to think about your priorities, you’re going to think about making sure you don’t have a catastrophic thing first.”
Asked whether this meant that communities should be ready to provide the bulk of the protection for local transit systems, Chertoff said, ”Yep.”
This was a mere footnote in comparison with the second thing that happened: Hurricane Katrina. The aftermath of the hurricane has consumed the Department for much of this fall, forcing the Department to delay many of its intended plans for the implementation of the Second-Stage Review, and focus on core preparedness and response issues.
Given this new reality, in the face of the devastation in New Orleans, DHS perhaps now believes that a focus on a “risk-based approach” is abstract and out-of-touch at best, and callous at worst.
Sec. Chertoff has made five full-length speeches since Hurricane Katrina, according to the DHS website: at a Chiefs of Police conference, Princeton, the Houston Forum, the Fire Chiefs Leadership Summit, and the American Legislative Exchange Council. The total number of times that ‘risk’ or ‘risks’ appear in these speeches: 1, 3, 0, 0, and 0.
This is clear evidence that there has been a conscious shift in the Department to no longer emphasize the idea of a ‘risk-based approach’ in their outside communications. Whether they are still organizing and managing activities consistent with risk management is a different question.
My supposition is that they still are – at least I hope so. The speeches that Sec. Chertoff gave this earlier in the year were laudable, and were absolutely what the head of DHS needed to be saying to the American people: (1) we CAN’T protect everything, and it would be foolish to try to do so; (2) therefore, we need to develop a sustainable strategy and spend our limited resources wisely; and (3) the American people need to understand that we are living in a new reality and internalize what it means to live in a world where risk exists and bad things can and will happen.
This was honest, smart and sensible talk. It needs to come back into the public discourse at DHS.