Much has been written, debated, blogged, and discussed this week on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and whether the creation of the Department of Homeland Security was a success. Many have observed this time as a somber occasion to remember the atrocities of that day. Some have touted the successes that have kept the nation from being attacked on such a scale in the last ten years. Others have noted deficiencies and failures in our homeland security efforts – gaps that leave us vulnerable. Still others have called for the dismantling of the Department of Homeland Security, viewing its creation as a mistake.
While DHS may not be the perfect agency (though I would challenge anyone to find the perfect agency or company), it has grown significantly from its early days. As an agency that had to set itself up during crisis, establish protocols and operate during its creation, and chart new territory under duress and uncertainty, DHS should be given credit for its efforts. That’s not to excuse its failures and gaffes along the way, but I think most of those individuals who chose to go to the agency during its first several years deserve credit for taking on an impossible task.
So where does DHS go from here? In the calmness of ten years after 9/11 (and 16 years after the Oklahoma City bombing), the agency and our nation’s homeland security efforts are at a crossroads. Threats remain but the Al Qaeda that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks is a shell of its former self, with Osama Bin Laden and other leaders dead. The fear of terrorist threat that caused stress and uneasiness in the American populace has been replaced with stress and uneasiness of unemployment, economic crisis, and debt ceilings. Seemingly unlimited funding and resources dedicated to protecting our homeland are dwindling and tough choices have to be made.
To make those choices requires recognition of some basic facts:
- Wherever one may be on the DHS-like spectrum, it has a mission we cannot ignore. Threats may not seem as vibrant as they did on September 12, 2011, but it would be foolish to think they are nonexistent. To quote Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
- The threat(s) are evolving and ever-changing, requiring our security efforts and requirements to evolve. Nimbleness and flexibility, coupled with non-bureaucratic imagination, are key to our future homeland security efforts. Very few people would have believed that terrorists would fly planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/10/11, even when the intelligence suggested otherwise.
- Security demands sacrifice, trust, and a bit of a thick-skinned as inevitably it will require us to change our perceptions and practices. The sacrifices we have had to make to fly are evidence of this necessity.
- New generations and thinkers are key to future efforts. We cannot let the policymakers and thinkers rely on those wedded to the past homeland security efforts to lead our efforts. History and experience must be at the table, but should innovative and imaginative ways for addressing our homeland security efforts.
- So long as the U.S. is a global leader, there will always be a need for homeland security.
- Reactive responses only address yesterday’s threats and doesn’t prepare us for tomorrow’s.
Recognizing these facts and that priorities may and should change based on a risk-based threat-driven approach to homeland security, where should our homeland security focus be in the coming years? Here are a few thoughts:
- Cybersecurity. While many people treat this as a new threat, it is one that has existed for decades. It just seems to be more prolific now that our entire lives are wired and online. There is no way to make cyberthreats, cybercrimes, and cyberattacks disappear completely, but efforts to mitigate and at least secure our most sensitive systems has to be a priority.
- National Unified Interoperability. This is probably the biggest failure of our homeland security efforts. We lack a system, should our nation be attacked, for our first responders and preventers to communicate with one another. Politics has played the largest role in delaying this effort, which is unfortunate given its importance.
- Leaner, Dedicated Grants. The grant process is one that has always been under scrutiny while also preserved because of political interest. There is a need for a robust grant system to ensure that communities have the assets and resources to respond, especially as they will be the first on the scene in crisis. Expect the grant system to shrink and, hopefully, be more targeted to addressing specific threats and needs. Hopefully, as it does so, policymakers will not ignore important threats to our rail, transportation, and port systems. Expect more accountability to ensure that fraud and abuse isn’t rampant.
- Congressional reform. The need for Congress to reform its own efforts on homeland security, remains a priority. The fact that the two homeland security committees must take a piecemeal approach to legislative efforts prevents effective comprehensive oversight. While some Committees may always have an interest and need to be involved in some legislation, the current jurisdiction of the authorizing Committees leave DHS with adequate unified supervision.
- Border Security. Border security has turned into an issue that crosses homeland security and law enforcement efforts. Anecdotes of attempted terrorist crossings are pulled out to explain the need for border security, but much of the debate has focused on illegal immigration and violence along the Southern Border. Decisions will need to be made as to whether border security is a criminal law enforcement issue or a homeland/national security issue. Driving that determination will be a need to define terrorist threats. Is it based on ideology? Do drug gangs perpetrating violence and threats against American citizens count as terrorism?
- Recovery. Should recovery be within DHS’ mission? Is disaster relief a homeland security issue or is there reason to take those efforts and separate them? Expect that debate, along with the debate of where FEMA belongs, to continue.
- Lone Wolf. With Al Qaeda less organized than the past, the potential for a lone wolf attack is great. Driven by ideology and/or hate, lone wolves do not necessarily give us much warning. This threat, while maybe not able to replicate the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks, can severely harm the U.S.
- Assessing Who is a Threat. With the Department’s announcement recently of a trusted traveler program, we are seeing movement away from treating everyone with skepticism to trying to focus our efforts on those who pose the greatest threat. The emergence of more risk-based approaches can be expected, especially in areas where the public interacts with DHS and other security entities.
- Unpredictability. If terrorists know us and our security practices, they know our vulnerabilities. Expect more discussion on unpredictable activity by DHS and the government to prevent this from happening.
These are only a few items that will, in my opinion, be a part of our path forward on homeland security. Whether the government embraces flexibility in security and focuses on improving our efforts will largely define how, when, and/or if we are attacked again.