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.