Sec. Chertoff has an opinion piece today in the Wall Street Journal (available by subscription only) entitled “There Is No Perfect Security,” which succinctly restates the core thesis of his tenure as Secretary: the imperative to apply risk management principles to homeland security. From the article:
This process of assessing risk and setting priorities should be familiar to those in the private sector. Companies use risk management to make tough decisions and weigh the costs and benefits of a particular set of investments in money and effort against an array of potential outcomes. For our department, risk management starts with weighing threats, vulnerabilities and consequences of a potential terrorist attack or catastrophic event, then conducting a rigorous, information-driven analysis both to set priorities for resources and to give focus and strategic direction to our policies and programs.
In short, we drive homeland-security investments by looking to facts and analysis, not politics. We acknowledge, however, that while most people support risk management in theory, enthusiasm tends to diminish once it is applied in practice. This is because risk management, by its very nature, involves a trade-off. In a free and open society, we simply cannot protect every person against every risk at every moment in every place. There is no perfect security. If we tried to attain total security the cost would be exorbitant — in financial terms and in lost freedom and prosperity. Balancing risk necessarily means applying resources against the highest risks — and not against all risk. As in any trade-off, some will gain resources and others will not.
Chertoff then defends the FY 2007 budget request, arguing that it reflects these risk management priorities, both in terms of the allocations for the key homeland security grant programs and in the operational activities of the Department. On the latter subject, he notes:
Of course, risk management is about more than just funding. We have to manage the risk posed by thousands of individuals and tons of cargo arriving at our airports, seaports and overland borders every day. This means promoting optimal security without damaging the flow of travelers and trade that promote our prosperity. Since 9/11, we have implemented a full range of screening systems, technology and infrastructure to identify and dismantle potential threats while keeping the lines moving and cargo flowing.
For airline passengers, risk management means using information and intelligence, coupled with advanced technology and screening procedures, to check individuals quickly — and to focus on those who pose the greatest risk. For shipping containers, it means using information and intelligence to separate high-risk cargo from low-risk cargo and then inspecting those containers that give us cause for concern. This allows us to keep our maritime trade moving, preserve jobs and promote our economy….
This is absolutely what the Department needs to be doing, and I’ve been glad to see DHS taking these positive steps in the direction of risk management in the past year. I worry though that the current mania in Congress and the media over US-Mexico border security could lead the Department astray from this imperative, and lead to underfunding of other initiatives targeted more directly at preventing and defending against the terrorist threat.
I’m also concerned that the current Katrina investigations – which are necessary and justified – could weaken the leadership of the Department politically and decrease their ability to push through programs and activities that are consistent with a risk management approach. Hopefully we can chart a course in the months ahead that strengthens our preparedness and response capabilities without having to abandon the smart risk-based strategy for terror prevention that Chertoff and his team have developed in the last year.