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.