Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 21, 2008

DHS (Again) Calls to Consolidate Congressional Committees

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Risk Assessment — by Jonah Czerwinski on July 21, 2008

Ever since DHS stood up there has been a battle underway to resist the temptation to fund every countermeasure and combat every conceivable threat. By in large that battle is being lost. However, a piece in yesterday’s New York Times by the deputy assistant secretary for policy development at DHS suggests that the culprit is excessive and disorganized Congressional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security.

Deputy assistant secretary Stephen Heifetz writes that “tangled homeland security laws” obstruct the ability of DHS to prioritize risks. Congressional committees and both political Parties are the source of the Department’s inability to “develop — and put in place — a broad risk assessment methodology.”

He cites the roughly 80 committees and subcommittees that oversee DHS as an unfair disadvantage when compared to the mere four committees that claim jurisdiction over the Department of Defense.

This comes at a cost not just in convenience and efficiency. Heifetz suggests that because Washington began to focus on bad things that might happen to us after 9/11, we identified “a seemingly infinite catalogue of worrisome possibilities” that include:
• nuclear, chemical and biological terrorist attacks delivered by planes, ships, cars or other mechanisms
• conventional explosives on mass transit systems
• gunmen in public places
• cyber attacks on computer and communication networks
• natural hazards like earthquakes and hurricanes

To avoid fighting every scenario, we need to measure what is truly a risk. Heifetz argues that doing so isn’t possible because of “dozens of Congressional committees and subcommittees that watch over the department have their own goals and have refused to give up authority.” He states that when every Congressional committee believes its subject area is priority number one, nothing is a priority. No risk assessment can be successful in this environment.

He is right to resist the “anything’s possible” homeland security approach, but Congressional oversight can be blamed for only part of the problem. Invoking the 9/11 Commission recommendation (which has been offered by countless other organizations for over seven years now) to consolidate the committees of jurisdiction into one seems logical. But this is something only the Congress can do. There are things that DHS can do to improve risk assessment.

Risk is measured in many ways, including the White House strategy documents, budget requests, the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, products of the DHS Office of Risk Management and Analysis, and responses to Congress, to say nothing of the intelligence reporting taking place at the international, federal, and state levels. I buy it that it must be a headache to lead this Department with so many masters, but the assessment of risks should be able to go on regardless. The hard part is getting people to believe it.

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3 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 21, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

FEMA complained on the same basis during the years I was there-1979-1999. The only really substantive change was when the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950, 81st Congress, Public Law 920 was repealed by P.L. 103-337 in November 1994 and the Armed Services Committees grew tired and complacent of oversight of the civil defense program in the US. Of course within a year Senator Sam Nunn had panicked over the lack of counter-terrorism preparedness leading to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and his concerns led in part to passage of the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act (Title XIV of the Defense Authorization bill for that fiscal year.) Thus, the Armed Services Committees no longer had direct oversight over FEMA except for its COG programs and the Senate Armed Services Committee no longer confirmed at least one FEMA Associate Director.

But DHS crys wolf without trying to do anything itself. It has submitted little in the way of technical legislation that might impact jurisdiciton including substitution of the Secretary DHS for the organizations of titles of predecessor agencies and organizations leading to its formation. Example, Title VI of the Stafford Act vesting authority in the Director of FEMA a title that has not existed since March 1, 2003. This is a major error anyhow since the authority of that title should be vested in the President not even the Secretary DHS. Even many of the Executive Orders delegating Presidential authority to the Secretary DHS from the President have significant glitches. Time to outright repeal E.O 12148 as amended and give a statutory charter to FEMA now that it has been given an organizational charter by statute. In other words, make sure it has authority to do what it needs to do which of course is still a big question–Does it operate or collaborate and cooperate and even sometimes mandate other federal entities to perform mitigation, prevention, response, recovery and of course preparedness. GAO has now reported that the Secretary DHS despite mandates can’t identify what the totality of Federal capabilities are in HS. About time for the real work to begin? Start by straigtening out the statutory glitches. Tough work but necessary. Oh and by the way, several Executive Orders, 12656, 12657, and 12148 rely on the repealed civil defense act. Perhaps other authority exists and perhaps not. Again time to get to work. In 1803 the SOCTUS decided that federal officials had to know their own authority–Little v. Bareme. Guess DHS is above the law. Since they clearly don’t have a clue as to what their legal charter is or what it should be. So don’t blame Congress (of course they are worthy of blame) but get to work DHS.

Comment by Jason

July 22, 2008 @ 9:11 am

I have to agree with Mr. Cumming (BTW, very interesting comment about Nunn and Atlanta Olympics). Obviously the number of interested congressional subcommittes is a drain on DHS resources, but on the other hand, that’s no excuse for not developing a sound strategy and implementing policy based on risk management. Nine times out of ten, the subcommittes just want a podium to talk AT the cameras, not necessarily to impose on the agency’s actions. Get off your ass, DHS, and do what’s important instead of trying to do everything at once.

Comment by Beth

November 3, 2008 @ 5:46 pm

How can DHS just ignore their own Federal Police Officers who were detailed to the World Trade Center 9/11 clean up after knowing others were getting sick, dying and finding out the EPA lied about the air quality. My husband should have never been detailed, sent on mandatory TYD to a death sentence and not even paid hazardous pay, denied advanced sick leave when DHS should have submitted reports, paperwork and approved worker’s compensation. DHS never answered one question since 2003 and not one document, response or record was ever communicated, filed and/or submitted; so how can supporting evidence, documentation and/or information be given to lawyers for further action to be taken as DHS was instructed, mandated and conspired through Memo for Official Use Only that all inquiries, questions and/or concerns from family members are “to seek legal counsel”! Why because DHS/Federal Government knows that not one lawyer will help, represent and/or waste their time on a wrongful death case, gross negligence or any federal case except the lawyers who represented the illegal immigrants whose family members died from the WTC dust 9/11 clean up detail and DHS worked out legal limbos in order for those illegal immigrants to legally invest their $4.2 million dollar compensation and allowed to stay as legal citizens provided those illegal immigrants gave DHS their “illegal” legal identification, personal information and how is that legally allowed and not considered “fraud”, “conspiracy” and “perjury”? DHS worked this to their advantage all the way by not responding, acknowledging, reporting and/or putting anything in writing that the time limitations, statutes of law and a total disgrace, sad and pathetic. Still awaiting for answers, continue the political lunacy for my husband’s and other fallen officers legacy and how Congress, GAO and 9/11 Commission mandates DHS regarding this oversight to be “out of sight” totally ignored, exempt and in contempt with not one attempt to resolve, help, honor, respect, acknowledge and/or do what is only right and should have been done from the beginning instead of letting those who have been fighting, crying and remembering our loved ones who have died for this country, as my husband was also a Vietnam Veteran, for a country and government forgetting those who helped, gave their lives and ran to help on that day our own President said that we and he would never forget. It took years before Vietnam Veterans and Agent Orange made a forgotten “out of sight” into never forget to fight for an obvious oversight? Please help those who helped when government needed them but not helping those who are sick and dying as they responded to the WTC attacks not just that day, not just the next week, or the next month but the entire time without any protection, compensation and now time is limited when there was not a limit on the lies, fraud and lives lost forever in time. We pay taxes, fight for freedom and told a respirator was not necessary the NYC air quality was not a health hazard when all the politicians wore masks, didn’t stay very long that one day to now be told time ran out, lies are just forgotten and Americans must be accountable for taxes, mortgages and poor helping the rich banks and if not we are punished, fined or put in jail without defending for our rights to find out that we really don’t have any rights; we are told what to wear, what to listen to, what to watch, what to pay for what we pay taxes towards then to be ignored, denied and “out of sight” oversight? Why? How? can this happen without anything done, enforced or mandated like paying taxes, working, being held responsible, accountable and liable like us poor, hard working, dedicated, legal Americans are made to do but not as government does.

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