Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 23, 2010

Homeland Security – What Is it?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on April 23, 2010

In last Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano offers the “First Person Singular” view of her job at DHS and how she got to it.  She recounts her path to Secretary, revealing tidbits of memories from growing up in New Mexico and Arizona.  It is an interesting yet short read that gives a personalized view of the Secretary in her own words.  Near the end of the piece she writes “There’s almost nothing I’ve done that doesn’t touch upon DHS.  The department crosses so many things.”

Those two sentences summarizes the struggle that has and will likely to continue to face the fledgling agency.  It is a question that many of us working in the space have asked ourselves – what is Homeland Security? Is it anything and/or everything?

Fellow HLSWatch contributor Chris Bellavita  wrote an article in June 2008 in Homeland Security Affairs exploring this very question.  He asserted that there were seven defensible definitions of homeland security:  terrorism, all hazards, terrorism and catastrophes, jurisdictional hazards, meta hazards, national security, and security uber alles.

Looking for more of a concrete answer, I turned to the Internet and social media.

In the About the Department section of DHS’s website, we learn that “The Department of Homeland Security has a vital mission: to secure the nation from the many threats we face. This requires the dedication of more than 230,000 employees in jobs that range from aviation and border security to emergency response, from cybersecurity analyst to chemical facility inspector. Our duties are wide-ranging, but our goal is clear – keeping America safe.”

Wikipedia tells us that homeland security “is an umbrella term for security efforts to protect the United States against perceived internal and external threats.”

The White House’s homeland security page, has a wide-range of issues listed as areas in which the Administration has made progress, from strategies for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to disaster relief, to border security, to cybersecurity, to surface  transportation security.  In the Guiding Principles section of the site, we learn that:

The President’s highest priority is to keep the American people safe. He is committed to ensuring the United States is true to our values and ideals while also protecting the American people. The President is committed to securing the homeland against 21st century threats by preventing terrorist attacks and other threats against our homeland, preparing and planning for emergencies, and investing in strong response and recovery capabilities. We will help ensure that the Federal Government works with states and local governments, and the private sector as close partners in a national approach to prevention, mitigation, and response.

Still searching for an answer or definition, I took to Facebook and posted the question “What is Homeland Security?” on my status update, soliciting opinions from friends across the geographic and political spectrum.   The responses I received were as diverse as the group who responded.

On one side, many folks raised concerns that homeland security was often perceived as being just one thing or another -aviation security, border security, or disaster relief,  to the detriment of other areas.  On the other side, I heard from folks – some who were in the trenches of operational issues – that components under DHS were “distracted” from their original missions.  One person wrote about appearance versus security, noting  “DHS needs to be less about the appearance of presence and more about the vigorous attention needed to ensure that our ports (both sea and air) and borders are adequately guarded.”

In the end, views from Facebook were as varied as those I had heard from experts and policy wonks inside the beltway, with each focusing on their little part of homeland security or asserting that homeland security had to be a little bit of anything and everything.

Of course, the challenge of being anything and everything is that the universe of what is covered is constantly expanding.  As we have experienced over the past several years, it is not difficult to add the word “security” to an issue and have a homeland security matter on one’s hands.  Add in the possibility that folks will substitute “security” for “safety,” and DHS’ universe could be infinite.

Maybe homeland security is just indicative of today’s busy lifestyles where people are constantly multi-tasking and trying to do anything and everything.  I did a search online and found an article entitled “You can do anything – but not everything,” published by Fast Company magazine in 2000.  The piece quotes a personal productivity expert who says that the real challenge in life is not managing one’s time, but managing one’s focus: If you get too wrapped up in all of the stuff coming at you, you lose your ability to respond appropriately and effectively.”

The article’s conclusion, echoing its title, is that “You can do anything — but not everything.”

Unfortunately, that simply is not an answer for Secretary Napolitano and the Department of Homeland Security.  Perhaps it really is about what Chris concluded in his 2008 article:

The absence of agreement can be seen as grist for the continued evolution of homeland security as a practice and as an idea.

Even if people did agree to define homeland security with a single voice, there would still be the matter of behavior. What people, organizations, and jurisdictions do is as instructive as what they say.

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 23, 2010 @ 11:05 am


Thanks for another thoughtful framing. A self-indulgent response: I spent most of this week in New York. Meetings had me walking past Ground Zero three or four times a day.

Wednesday afternoon I spent a few minutes at St. Paul’s Chapel. You may recall this became a rest-and-recovery center for first responders in the days immediately after the attack.

The WTC construction site is immediately across Church Street. But somehow the sounds are dramatically softened beneath the tall White Oaks. Crab apples and other flowering trees are in bloom. The graveyard is covered with pink and white petals.

Inside the chapel are pictures of those who served, those who died, and especially those who were never found. A few people are kneeling in prayer. St. Paul’s is one of the few structures that survived the great fire of 1776. Being so close to the Towers, it is even more remarkable it survived 911.

I wonder if this place doesn’t give us some clues about what homeland security is – or could be? Homeland security is especially attuned to the threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences that are beyond specific prediction… whether the origin is natural, accidental, or intentional.

Homeland security is involved with others in trying to prevent harm. When harm cannot be prevented, homeland security seeks to empower all of us to respond with care and competence. Because homeland security is focused on what cannot be precisely predicted and, therefore, not always prevented, it is especially committed to a resilience that goes beyond mere survival to the preservation of relationships, values, and a beauty that defines our best selves.

I know you want something more practical – I do too – but if something like this could be a common vision I would have more confidence in our practical contributions.


Comment by William R. Cumming

April 23, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

Great post and comment by Jessica and Phil. Personally I have given up with attempting to define HS. Why? The theory of DHS was to make for more effective and efficient HS! That reorganization has not only done neither but detracted from what might have been success. First let’s review the three priorities that led to the formation of DHS! First, domestic INTEL and integration of various domestic systems that might just might prevent another 9/11! Second, cyber security and its increasing impact on American society and its economic and political sinews. Third, more effective leveraging of existing systems for many purposes. Basically NADA has really been accomplished. Now each new threat or alleged threat or actual or threatened incident/event causes all to challenge DHS choices over its priorities. To me, DHS should have two and only two priorities and this is fact is what Homeland Security is all about at the bottom. And note for the record the Department of Civil Security would have hammered home the federal system and non-military preparedness that is in fact what my two priorities represent. First, WMD policy and issues and efforts. Second, cyber security with its subset of computer security. Perhaps a third of creating domestic INTEL arrangements that preserve privacy, civil liberties, and the Constitutional restrictions on search and seizure and due process.
My guess is none of my priorities can be accomplished or put forth as the mission without significant casting off of non-related missions to other Executive Branch organizations. Nor can they be furthered by current organizational arrangements. It has been reliably reported that FEMA was the subject that consumed the time and effort of Secretaries Ridge and Chertoff to the extent of 50% of their managment and policy time. This is ridiculous since FEMA has nothing or almost nothing to do with the three priorities identified above. And now of course funding for the “day jobs” of the DHS components is threatened even while the priorty areas are understaffed and underfunded. A huge Secretarial operation and management operation has burdened both command and control systems when needed and burdened the flattened management and organization that has been the hallmark of modern business practice since at least the 20’s and 20’s with Mary Follette (Parker?) and other business theorists. Let’s get rid of the lawyers as managers and get people in DHS that understand either public administration, wicked issues, or modern business methods. This largely second tier and poorly run operation is no longer the drive sprocket envisaged by some, in particular Senator Lieberman but in fact the leading factor in preventing effective and efficient HS from taking place. My problem is that the right event could in fact end our democracy (Republic) just as 9/11 resulted in complete disarray and feeble efforts that resulted largely in more militarism and muscular foreign policy for the US. Even now we are seeing serious erosion in the W. Hemisphere of American hard and soft power. China, Cuba operating in Haiti more effectively than the US. Russian and China asserting an interest in Venzuela and Mr. Chavez. And highest priority of all the collapse of the Mexican economy and polity as the cartels effectively overcome Mexican governmental efforts to police them. The MONROE Doctrine should be replaced completely and repudiated outright publically and in writing by the US. We seem to have total incoherence in framing domestic policy and its impact on the world. And yes if Greece does go bankrupt from the machinations of US wall street slicky boys it will again be made clear to many that NO one is in charge of the Ship of State or HS. WE have created a largely fragile system and reinforced that fragility with a ponderous, non-learning heavily lobbied by contractor organization like DHS. It is no longer possible to argue in any way shape or form that HS is furthered by the continued existence of DHS in its current configurations. My first step at reform would be to pinpoint exactly which personnel in DHS are accountable for the performance and success of each of the DHS programs, functions, and activities. The current system seems brilliantly designed to avoid accountablilty. $50B wasted on IT contracts since March 2003. Wow. Other areas equally likely to have accomplished only achieving WASTE, FRAUD, and ABUSE. And are career military officers and enlisted ranks the only option for recruiting for a substantial portion of DHS staff? The academic studies of second career organizations are legion and while there are exceptions, many of these people are not in learning mode but just serving time until their military and civil service pensions are united into a larger federal pension. Have you ever seen a real demographic of the DHS workforce?And culture–how many DHS personnel have been killed in the line of duty and therefore are entitled to retire after 20 years since March 2003? Hello is anyone home? Each position in DHS should be identified with a special code if the person holding the positon interfaces with the public or interfaces only with other DHS bureacrats? That would be an interesting metric.

Comment by bellavita

April 23, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

Thank you for providing me with outstanding perspectives I will be able to use in class next week. Let’s see what 32 other folks say about this issue. I will report their findings.

Comment by Cosmo deMedici

April 23, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

There is a difference between “homeland security” and the Department of Homeland Security. Statute tells you what the Department is and is not, by the authorities (aka mission, power, and roles) granted.

In simple terms, the Department of Homeland Security is the nation’s “gate-keeper” and its “coordinator” in times of domestic need (think all-hazards). I know that sounds overly simplistic but look at the agencies that came to DHS. Customs, Border Patrol, USCG and TSA are guarding gates (both at the border and internally). ICE investigates threats to the gates, and CIS brings in new citizens through the gates. DHS’s cyber mission is gate keeping, as is Infrastructure Protection’s mission. The entire Department, except for FEMA, is involved with watching a gate (in the broadest sense of the term), and we could argue that even FEMA has gate duty with some of its missions (think flood mapping).

FEMA is a special star in DHS as the coordinator, and there are other pockets of DHS that do this as well (think Fusion Centers with I&A, or even emergency communications in NPPD). FEMA would like to think of themselves as “large and in-charge” for Federal mitigation and response to all hazards (which they have a huge role in), but really they coordinate the entire response to all-hazards and particularly for the Federal government. The advantage of FEMA being in DHS is that there are other Departmental assets they can tap for immediate response via the Secretary. So FEMA’s coordination and action strength is exponentially increased.

Before anyone starts asking or saying something doesn’t fit the “gate-keeper” and “coordinator” roles – think broadly. Also, look at the QHSR. There is a page (call out box) that shows the history of DHS components being in one federal department before. Also, every federal agency has some “extra” mission that makes the most cost efficient basis to place with another agency due to existing assets (USCG is a great example with buoy tending).

The challenge is that in a free and open nation as the U.S., there are a lot of gates and threats, but there will never be enough formal “gate-keepers” and “coordinators”.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 24, 2010 @ 1:03 am

Thanks Cosmo! I think the last sentence is the operative one in your post. Thus, the citizens are ulitmately the most important gatekeepers and coordinators IMO. To be i that role they need technical assistance. How much technical assistance to citizens is given by DHS on HS? That also would be another interesting metric? And how do you best support the development, adoption, and operation of the “sinews of HS”? Are some missions, goals, programs, functions, and activities of DHS adverse to building, adopting, operating these “sinews of HS”? You could go policy by policy, or program by program as an example and analyze how HS is impacted positively or negatively? For example does the presence and entry into the US of large numbers of undocumented people aid HS or detract from HS? I don’t believe that answer is a simple one. Related for example–is the existence of dual citizenship as a US legal policy something that aids or detracts from HS? Does an open and largely unregulated INTERNET aid or detract from HS? The list is endless. But a start would be what was mandated by statute for the QHSR and not yet provided–the origins, development, policies, adoption and implementation of each DHS component and whether it adds or detracts from HS? Another example, does the organization of Congress promote or detract from HS, and if either is analyzed, why or why not? This question has been answered in the negative in many many major reports and studies, all of them of course ignored by Congress.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 24, 2010 @ 11:23 am

Il Vecchio’s distinction between homeland security, as a field or discipline, and the Department of Homeland Security is important. I am usually more concerned about homeland security.

But I find the gatekeeper and coordinator frames very helpful for the Department. I wonder what he might make of gatekeepers and facilitators?

To me a coordinator needs some semblance of accepted order. I don’t think we’re there (yet). A facilitator on the other hand is attentive to the needs/wants of the various players and works to make achievement easier… often by exposing shared needs/wants… and organizing around those potential sources of common order.

See: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/facilitate

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 25, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

Organizational design and management competence may assist in reaching various goals but never guarantees success. Just as motivation and determination never are the sole determinants of a sporting events outcome. Same with HS and defining HS.

I posted on my blog at http://vlg338.blogspot.com testimony delivered by Dan Prieto that covers some of the same ground as this post and comments. I think it sets a high standard for discourse on these subjects. Just as this post and comments.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 26, 2010 @ 4:40 am

In September 2006 Dan Prieto gave Senate testimony on the subject of this post and comments. I find it particulary useful to point out that even if organization structure is perfect and management is great success is not always achieved. Just as determiniation and motivation does not always lead to a win in sporting events or even military engagements.

The testimony is posted on my blog at http://vlg338.blogspot.com

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 26, 2010 @ 4:49 am

In September 2006 Dan Prieto gave testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on the subjects covered by this post and comments. I think it might well be of interest to the readers of this blog.

Unfortunately not knowing how to get it to this blog I posted it on my own at http://vlg338.blogspot.com

Comment by Armed Security Companies

April 26, 2010 @ 6:29 am

Security of our country is top priority, homeland security is an effort in the right direction to protect our land from all possible attacks.

Comment by Pharmacy News

July 10, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

The WTC construction parcel is straightaway crosswise Faith Street. But somehow the sounds are dramatically softened beneath the high Light Oaks. Decapod apples and new maturation trees are in flush. The necropolis is mantled with knock and colour petals.

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