Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 18, 2005

What happened to Chertoff’s “Risk Based Approach”?

Filed under: DHS News,Risk Assessment — by Christian Beckner on December 18, 2005

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.”

Local leaders and members of Congress lashed out at this statement in the days that followed, forcing a seemingly frustrated Chertoff to defend his words on multiple fronts.

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.

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Comment by Anonymous

December 18, 2005 @ 4:11 am

I believe that the Department still has the same risk based approach mentioned so widely prior to both the comment you cited and Katrina. Both events have significantly impacted the way to implement the approach though. The first taught Chertoff that the public front of a risk based approach is perilous. The approach is well supported until it means not spending on a priority important to a particular area, which his comment on mass transit clearly demonstrated. Katrina on the other hand made many feel that the Department and the Government overall has no clear idea about what the risks really are. How can Chertoff publicly continue a campaign of a risk based approach if the public has not faith in the Department’s knowledge of the risks or of the proper response?

I agree with you that a risk based approach is still top priority for the Department and hope it is not shallow mantra but the cornerstone of policy for Stewart Baker to implement.


Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » Chertoff speech at GWU: initial reactions

December 20, 2005 @ 11:26 am

[…] 2. DHS perhaps read my post this past week on Chertoff’s failure to continue to discuss the risk-based approach this fall. By my quick count, ‘risk’ or ‘risks’ were mentioned at least 34 times…a new record. He also acknowledge the inherent complexity in communicating to the public and the media about risk, commenting that “everybody liked this in March” but he has found out that frank talk on risk is “applauded in theory but criticized in practice.” […]

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