Wouldn’t it be great if homeland security ranked up there with the big five of presidential debates (health care, social values, economy, taxes, all out war)? Many of us watched as John Kerry and George W. Bush agreed during their first debate of the 2004 campaign that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists represented the most serious threat to the homeland. We watched and thought this was remarkable for two reasons. First, these two agreed on something. Second, they were about to start focusing on the details of securing the homeland as part of a public discourse as a determinant for the election. Or so we thought. The campaigns soon returned to their corners and the topic of homeland security was returned to its somewhat bumper-sticker status.
In the next election, which is apparently already underway, we likely will not witness the ascension of homeland security to the top of the issues list beyond the necessary nod to such things as grants tied to risk, securing public mass transit, and perhaps an enlightened reference to rolling back root causes.
But let’s be hopeful. The GAO issued a study they call 21st Century Challenges: Reexamining the Base of the Federal Government. In it, the GAO identifies twelve “reexamination areas” in which the public’s attention should be invested. Among those areas is homeland security. The writers of this report close in on eight broad areas to be addressed with specific questions as follows:
What is an acceptable level of risk to guide homeland security strategies and investments, particularly federal funding? For example, how should risk be managed in making sound threat, risk, and criticality assessments, developing countermeasure options, and implementing those options considered the most effective and the most efficient? What criteria should be used to target federal funding for homeland security in order to maximize results and mitigate risk within available resource levels?
What new international and domestic strategies and related tactics will effectively confront the asymmetric tactics we now face and, for the longer term, address the root causes of terrorism? For example, how can we best anticipate, and thus counter, asymmetric threats such as suicide attacks, biological and chemical terrorism, and cyber attacks? What approaches will address the root causes of terrorism, whether from domestic or international groups? For example, should the current U.S. approach to overseas broadcasting be realigned to target and better reach audiences in areas where new threats are?
Are existing incentives sufficient to support private sector protection of critical infrastructure it owns, and what changes might be necessary? How can intelligence and information on threats be shared with other levels of government and other critical entities, yet be held secure?
What is the most viable way to approach homeland security results management and accountability? For example, how should progress in the current war on terrorism be measured and assessed? What are the appropriate goals for prevention, vulnerability reduction, and response and recovery? Who is accountable for the many components of homeland security when many partners and functions and disciplines are involved? How can these actors be held accountable and by whom?
What should be the role of federal, state, and local governments in identifying risks – from nature or man – in individual states and localities and establishing standards for the equipment, skills, and capacities that first responders need?
What costs should be borne by federal, state, and local governments or the private sector in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters large and small – whether the acts of nature or man, accidental or deliberate?
To what extent and how should the federal government encourage and foster a role for regional or multistate entities in emergency planning and response?
Those questions are ideal prompts to direct the attention of the presidential candidates and nominees for this next election. Indeed, answers to those questions would set the stage for a heck of a transition.