Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 10, 2007

CRS Takes on “Risk”

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS,Risk Assessment — by Jonah Czerwinski on February 10, 2007

This month the Congressional Research Service issued a new report on the concept of “risk” in Homeland Security.  The importance of assessing, mitigating, and otherwise calculating risk in the effort to protect the homeland is easy to appreciate.  But claw back the terminology and talking points, and it becomes less clear just how risk can be assessed – much less calculated – when it comes to the evolving threats of terrorism.  Terrorism offers neither the trend lines nor the depth of historical data (thank goodness) needed to design a reliable methodology that risk assessment demands in other cases, such as hurricanes or car accidents.   

Does that mean it’s a useless tool?  Secretary Chertoff brought a welcomed new rationale to homeland security investments when he was nominated by suggesting that politics needn’t drive the way we protect vulnerable components of the country.  He argued that HLS leadership should “base its work on priorities driven by risk.”  Eventually adopting a phrase coined by the HSAC WME Task Force, he began suggesting that DHS efforts should “buy down the risk:”  Investments, in other words, should be targeted in ways that bring about the greatest possible return by gauging the likelihood and potential severity of terrorist threats to the homeland.  According to CRS, that’s easier said than done.  While this may have occurred to many of us during the years since Secretary Chertoff first committed the Department to this rationale, few have been able to bring this kind of clarity to the real challenges of applying risk to protecting against (or actively combating) terrorism.

While this new study draws attention to the important issue of how to apply the nearly $12 billion spent under the federal Homeland Security Grant Program, its worth considering how risk assessments may be used (or eventually required) for determining other HLS investments.  For example, look for renewed attention by Congress on WMD-related initiatives.  Long-lead items such as research and development for better defenses against bio- or nuclear terrorism involve significant uncertainty because scientific research may lead to dead-ends before arriving at a new solution.  It will be important for Congress to consider how risk assessments could determine if WMD attacks are deemed sufficiently likely to warrant the level of commitment called for in some of these areas (see post from 2/6/07).  I’ll dedicate another post soon to this important question.  In the meantime, the CRS study is entitled “The Department of Homeland Security’s Risk Assessment Methodology: Evolution, Issues, and Options for Congress,” and can be found here. 

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3 Comments »

Comment by Claire Rubin

February 10, 2007 @ 4:58 pm

Thanks for picking up from Christian and continuing this service. Getting info about CRS reports is very useful.

Pingback by Vital Systems Security » Blog Archive » More on DHS ‘risk’ assessment

February 16, 2007 @ 10:54 am

[...] Security Watch, a blog run by CSIS-type Washington policy analysts, should be added to our radar. A recent post announced the publication of a Congressional Research Service report on Homeland Security’s [...]

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » UMD Terror Database, Now Public, Should Inform Risk Analysis

May 28, 2007 @ 11:30 am

[...] Because factors other than frequency and severity should inform assessments of terrorism risk, it is noteworthy that the START database includes more than 200 factors that can be used to determine antecedent markers, common vulnerabilities, and other trends of that emerge from a deep look at past cases. The Congressional Research Service waded into the subject of risk as outlined in this post. [...]

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