Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 10, 2011

Practicing Politics in Homeland Security

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on October 10, 2011

“In any disaster, there are operations and politics—it’s stupid to deny that both don’t go on steroids when disaster strikes. It is also naïve to believe that the two can be neatly separated. The Venn Diagram will always show an overlap. The best way to mange the friction between the operational and the political is to have a leader experienced in both worlds—a skilled practitioner who knows how things are supposed to work and understands the politics of disaster—read Thad Allen. And they have to get the politics part right—not that they should practice politics. They should in fact be scrupulously non-partisan, but they must skilled at dealing with politicians.”

James Carafano, Assistant Director of the Heritage Foundation’s Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, Security Debrief blog.

Mr. Carafano makes the above observation in a blog post bemoaning the current DHS interpretation of the concept of the Principal Federal Officer (PFO) in responding to major disasters.  Carafano hears that instead of  appointing the Thad Allen-types to lead a response to big events, the Secretary of the Department will assume the role. This might be inside-the-beltway nitpicking (if you are a resident, responder, or local elected leader do you care about the designation of the official coordinating federal support?) or it could have real-world implications.  To be honest, having no operational experience I am not convinced either way.

However, I am certain about the importance of a concept that Carafano gingerly skates around–politics.  To emphasize the non-partisan nature of what he is suggesting, Carafano states”they have to get the politics part right—not that they should practice politics.” I believe that to get the politics part right, the people entrusted to coordinate future responses to large events have to be very good at practicing politics.

Politics has become a dirty word, immediately bringing to mind bitter partisan disputes and decisions made not on the basis of what is best for the community (impacted by a large event in the terms I am discussing) but for electoral or personal advantage. Instead, I am referring to definitions provided by Merriam-Webster:

1a. the art or science of government.

3a. competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership.

5a. the total complex of relations between people living in society.

Relations and competition does not necessarily have to translate into Blue-Red electoral wrestling.  It is also a part of general human interaction and a vital part of what must me managed during any incident. The larger the event, the more complex the range of interactions, relationships, and competing interests. Successful management of these facets are as important as the operational details of any response, and sometimes they are the parts that influence the narrative of events. Consider the BP oil spill, about which the former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at DHS Juliette Kayyem writes:

In hindsight, it’s clear to me that there were two different responses to the spill — one political, one operational. Despite some fits and starts, the operational response largely worked. But it was the political response that garnered so much attention, and seemed so disconnected from what was going on day-to-day operationally. What happened last summer was that the ground rules that had guided oil-spill responses for two decades were exposed as politically infeasible — even though it was those ground rules that guided the entire response from start to finish.


THE MEMORY of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the same region that was threatened by the oil spill, created additional political burdens. The Oil Pollution Act demanded payments and cleanups, but not much else. It was all designed before Hurricane Katrina, which showed that public expectations of what the government ought to do far exceeded any traditional notion of emergency response. That the media began calling the spill “Obama’s Katrina’’ only intensified the political imperative: It was not enough to clean up the oil; the Gulf had to come back stronger and better.

The Gulf governors found the post-Exxon Valdez ground rules unrealistic as well. Under the law, states were required to work with the Coast Guard and the industry to plan an Area Contingency Plan, a mutual agreement by all parties about what response techniques would be used in the event of a major spill. Not one of the Gulf governors — all of them Republican, at least two potentially running against President Obama in 2012 — would accept that his own experts had signed off on plans that, essentially, they no longer liked in the harsh light of day.


IN A democracy, any disaster is inherently political. This isn’t a criticism. The administration did, in my view, what any compassionate and concerned administration ought to do; the governors would similarly defend themselves. And maybe first responders are too quick to criticize elected officials for involving themselves in major disasters; leadership is what we elect them for. They can assign blame, demand resources, and channel popular outrage in a way a by-the-book field response cannot.

Real partisan politics mixes with the general exercise of political practice–this is the case no matter the event or political party in power. Management of these dynamics requires not the application of an ideological point of view but the exercise of political skills that balances power dynamics, competition for scarce resources, and complex social arrangements. This is true in response to a major event as it is in leading a team of people in an office.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 11, 2011 @ 12:25 am

An always timely subject for a post. Helpful background. Yes merger of the technical and political clearly a task for only the first order of those competent to deal with complex fast moving events. Unfortunately the number of those available in USA today is extremely limited wherein even the 1500 flag ranks in the military not up to their jobs and could not deal with the complexity of a BP catastrophe or Katrina. What is very interesting to me about how the Fukishima event is playing out is that no one yet seems to be a specific leader to the response but hand wringing and poor emergency information seems to have a drip drip to bad news getting out. I defer to Phil but I believe we the USA might not do much better in an event of that scale. And of course we are highly prone to such a disaster occurring. Note that North ANNA reactors still off status since Mineral VA earthquake.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

October 11, 2011 @ 1:30 am

Thanks for bringing up Fukushima-the topic crossed my mind while I was writing this post but my specific thought escaped me too quickly. In that case I think you had the worst of both worlds–proper and necessary technical decisions delayed due to corporate and governmental politics (specifically venting of hydrogen gas), and a lack of communication from government experts about decisions made regarding what should be considered acceptable radiation levels in the surrounding communities.

The Virginia reactor remaining offline is probably the correct choice as the ground shook to a greater degree than that for which the plant was designed. However, the setting of those particular specifications most likely was not simply a technical question but one that involved political interaction among and between government agencies at several levels and corporate entities.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 11, 2011 @ 7:17 am

There is beginning to be some evidence that the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] is seriously trying to learn the lessons of Fukishima, including changing Emergency Planning zones. Those are based on EPA and FDA PAGs [Protective Action Guidance} now. Remains to be seen if this will give berth to more energetic regulation or be still born.

Of the worlds 472 nuclear power reactors, 110 are in the USA with 5 more potentially licensable. Over 50 in various stages of development world wide. So far only Germany, and Switzerland have announced ending their reliance on nuclear power. Remains to be seen if more nation-states will do so.

Comment by The "Beltway Bandits" and the Politics of "Disaster"

October 11, 2011 @ 9:40 am

The politics of “disaster” needs far fewer “skilled practitioners” dealing with politicians and the bvious need, term limits for those “entrusted” to serve the public who We see here on “Main Street USA” as self-serving in their way and truly incapable of standing tall for what is Right from the ever evolving government embracing and dictating healthcare to denying the Constitutional Rights of citizen.

Practicing politics in DHS, We need to rid ourselves here on “Main Street USA” who do not have the interests of our beloved Republic foremst in their voting issues.

Despite what you may hear when listening to CNBC and positive spins, watch the CNN and Fox News networks over the next weeks and months and see the trouble brewing on the streets of Cairo which will spill over throughout the Middle East as the bearer of bad news to come and We as a nation so obviously unprepared in so many ways and so unenlightened by the obvious…

Christopher Tingus
PO Box 1612
Harwich, MA 02645

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