Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 10, 2012

Driving while under the influence of many homeland security definitions

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on April 10, 2012

I was happy to see a copy of an April 3, 2012 Congressional Research Service (CRS) publication called “Defining Homeland Security: Analysis And Congressional Considerations.” (Thanks JM)

I like CRS reports.  I think CRS does some of the best policy analysis in the country.

Shawn Reese is given credit as the Defining Homeland Security author.  (I understand CRS reports are often a group product.)  I think the document makes a contribution to the sprawling “What is homeland security” literature, and related topics.  It’s worth reading.

The report summarizes the evolution of homeland security as a concept, and reviews the main strategy documents from the 2002 Strategy up through the 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism.

It notes the various definitions of homeland security imbedded in the strategies, and does a service to homeland security students everywhere by summarizing those definitions and identifying common themes among them.

The report outlines where homeland security spending goes (at least half of it does not go to DHS or its missions), and describes the importance of risk:

“Homeland security is essentially about managing risks. The purpose of a strategic process is to develop missions to achieve that end.”

I hope to write more about the opinion that homeland security is about managing risk. It’s a mantra that has been around more than a decade. John Mueller and Mark Stewart point out in their brutally impressive 2011 book, Terror, Security, and Money, the mantra still has no clothes.

But that’s for another post.

I want to get back to the CRS report.


The main claim in the report is

“the US government does not have a single definition for homeland security.”

This is considered to be a problem because

“Varied homeland security definitions and missions may impede the development of a coherent national homeland security strategy, and may hamper the effectiveness of congressional oversight.”

I like words and definitions as much as any academic, but I’m still looking for a significant policy domain where having a single definition contributes to policy effectiveness.

Last time I checked, there were over 100 Congressional committees and subcommittees that had some oversight responsibility for homeland security. I’m guessing that unique structural feature of the homeland security enterprise may be a greater impediment to coherence than the lack of a single definition.

One of the characteristics of a wicked problem is the presence of multiple definitions (of problems and solutions), generated by multiple stakeholders. If homeland security is seen as an aggregation of wicked problems, the absence of a single definition is not a problem to be solved. It is a terrain feature to be acknowledged.  Policy prescriptions that are appropriate for tame problems turn effete in the presence of wicked problems.


The CRS report asserts that “policymakers continue to grapple with the definition of homeland security.”

I’ve been around homeland security policymakers. I have not heard them spending much time grappling with definitions.

Typically, they tend to hang out with people who subscribe to the same general definition of homeland security they do. And if they run into somebody with a different definition – “it’s about terrorism;” “no it’s about all hazards;” “no it’s about national security;” “no it’s about slow moving disasters;” “no, it’s about….– they’ll either argue for a while, or get another drink and go back to people who speak the same language they do.

Richard Rorty believed “truth is what your colleagues let you get away with.” There may be too many different collegial tribes in homeland security to reach a consensus definition.

But I do like the image of grappling policymakers.


The CRS document evokes a wistful specter of how public policy is made:

“Policymakers develop strategy by identifying national interests, prioritizing goals to achieve those national interests, and arraying instruments of national power to achieve the national interests.”

And later in the report:

“In an ideal scenario, there would be a clear definition of homeland security, and a consensus about it; as well as prioritized missions, goals, and activities. Policymakers could then use a process to incorporate feedback and respond to new facts and situations as they develop.”

Ignore for the moment who these “policymakers” are who think and act like this, even in scenarios. Do we have enough — or any — examples of policy domains where this kind of process exists?


The CRS report refers to how well (apparently) the Quadrennial Defense Review identifies “national security and U.S. Military priorities and [guides the] priorities through a process ‘…from objectives to capabilities and activities to resources’.”

I think we’ve already tried — in the early 2000s — injecting Department of Defense logics into homeland security. Civilians, governors, mayors, agencies, associations, corporations and other members of the enterprise preferred — in their small f federalist and small p populist way — to make their own decisions.

Maybe there are some non-military public policy examples where interests lead to goals, missions etc. … all the way down to activities and resources: Education? Health? Environment? Criminal Justice? Transportation? International Relations? Congress?

The literary critic John Leonard once wrote this about how policy is made:

“Understand that national policy – any policy – is arrived at by the accretions of hunch, conviction, compromise, fatigue and exhibitionism.”

In my experience that’s a more accurate description of the policy process than strategists sitting around the room identifying national interests, prioritizing goals, and arraying instruments of national power.


The CRS report suggest developing an effective homeland security strategy:

“may be complicated if the key concept of homeland security is not defined and its missions are not aligned and synchronized among different federal entities with homeland security responsibilities.”

I hear grappling in those words.

I hear grappling between Newton and Darwin. Adherents of a Newtonian worldview long for a universe where all the parts fit together like a machine. Darwinians muck around in John Leonard’s accretion stew, struggling to do a little bit here, a little bit there.

Good luck to the machine people. I too would like to live in a world where all the parts fit together. I think homeland security is messier than that.

The CRS report – reluctantly – might also agree:

“Some degree of evolution of the homeland security concept is expected. Policymakers respond to events and crises like terrorist attacks and natural disasters by using and adjusting strategies, plans, and operations. These strategies, plans, and operations also evolve to reflect changing priorities. The definition of homeland security evolves in accordance with the evolution of these strategies, plans, and operations.”


Darwin could not have said that better himself.


This very worthwhile CRS report treats an important topic. But I don’t think it’s about definitions.

“As deficit reduction causes demand for reduced federal spending, Congress may [sic] pay more attention to homeland security funding…. Limited resources heighten the importance of prioritization and need for efficient and effective federal spending…. [There] is no clarity in the national strategies of federal, state, and local roles and responsibilities; and, potentially [sic], funding is driving priorities rather than priorities driving the funding.”

If funding is driving priorities, I wonder who is driving the funding.

I’d like to ask them how they’re able to do all that driving without having a single definition of homeland security.

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Comment by Michael Brady

April 10, 2012 @ 5:51 am

“If funding is driving priorities, I wonder who is driving the funding.

I’d like to ask them how they’re able to do all that driving without having a single definition of homeland security.”

The report is on my reading list, but for now I suspect that while there may be some true believers who actually worry about what the term means or should mean, there is a nearly unlimited supply of interested parties willing to accrete power, spend money, or turn profits in the name of “homeland security.” A singular definition might result in tighter controls on where the power pools, the votes come from, or the money goes, which is in none of the players’ interests…

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 10, 2012 @ 9:40 am

Excellent post Chris and excellent report by CRS! The line drawing between HS and other paradigms will be even more intense as budgets are reduced.

With almost $80B wasted on IT systems and related matters since HS became DHS it is rather tragic that no real oversight by Congress or GAO or DHS/OIG on that subject alone. I could argue that what DHS contractors get the STATES and LOCAL governments don’t get so that is the zero sum game in HS implementation. Most HS grant funds are used as general revenue sharing by the STATES and their local governments. FEW real metrics developed or involved. I note that today’s Federal Register has a notice from FEMA that they are issuing a STATE self assessment form to comply with the PKEMRA 2006 that FEMA assess STATE capability. Joke! Perhaps FEMA should revert to a contract rather than grant vehicle and give each state the responsibility to produce specific goods or services to enhance capabilities. This was how federal civil defense operated until the STATES were able to create an almost unenforceable grant vehicle in the 70’s and 80’s. Preparedness is a 24/7/365 issue and not an annual paper survey compliance activity.

With almost 1000 politically vetted positions, and almost 1000 jobs in DHS described as policy analysts, the DEMS have continued to view DHS as a “political dumping ground” [term developed to apply to FEMA after Hurricane Hugo made landfall in S.C.]!

Well you don’t always get what you pay for!

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 10, 2012 @ 10:06 am

“Civil Security” would have been a better label for the HS sector. Again predicting DHS will not survive this decade. Once Senator Lieberman departs the way will be cleared for reforms at least in the Senate.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 10, 2012 @ 10:10 am

And the bulk of the time and efforts of the NSC NSS staff labeled for HS have been spent on foreign issues and few have civil security expertise or could care about it. Especially John Brennan who was raised in the CIA culture, a failed one at that.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

April 10, 2012 @ 10:32 am

The idea of “homeland security” is in and of itself incredibly large. Its breathtaking how many dendrites and network nodes there are. Sometimes I wonder if we just get too linear in our methodologies and inhibit the understanding of how vast the idea is. It’s not linear at all but more akin to an exponential idea. Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2). If that’s the case than this is a growing monolith of contradictions and nebulae.

Perhaps Richard Rorty is correct and the “truth is what your colleagues let you get away with.” is in fact the squeaky wheel…If there are too many tribes then there are too many undiscovered ones too!
So I pose this to the group;

So is excess corn production a homeland security issue? I guess it depends on who you ask.

Is obesity a homeland security issue?

Are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and “Terminator Seeds” that potentially kill bees a homeland security issue?

Does the fact that Saudi Arabia now consumes more oil than Germany a US Homeland Security issue?

Does the suicide of Dimitris Christoulas, a pensioner from Greece emerge as a Homeland Security issue?

Food, water, fuel, health…are they all homeland security issues?

What about safety?

Is globalization a Homeland security issue?

What about the Constitution? Does invoking the privilege of having rights under the Constitution constitute a homeland security issue?

All of these nodes of information do intersect the others at some point. And at each intersection do we than interact and plan with CDC, HHS, DOA, DOS, DOJ, etc?

If they are not homeland security issues is because our definition is too narrow or our expectation to broad?

“Typically, they tend to hang out with people who subscribe to the same general definition of homeland security they do. And if they run into somebody with a different definition – “it’s about terrorism;” “no it’s about all hazards;” “no it’s about national security;” “no it’s about slow moving disasters;” “no, it’s about….– they’ll either argue for a while, or get another drink and go back to people who speak the same language they do.”.
So silo’s of like minded points of view unyielding and unwilling to entertain other points of view…sounds like another body of folks we talk about often.

With all this interlocking points of contact, there is an appearance of order and stability, but the volatility goes undetected or un-noticed or ignored. Each interaction brings with it friction. Whether its ignorance or willful blindness, the fact is this; more complexity and friction added into a system will create more perturbation. Isn’t that kind of the definition of self-organized criticality (SOC)? So are we hastening the acceleration to of another or different system failure?

Does the creation of DHS make us less safe and capable? Each one of these definitions brings with it gaps, blindspots, and all too often hindsight and reverse plan engineering to fit the evidence to the result.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

It’s just a thought.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 10, 2012 @ 11:38 am

Just for the record as we face a long hot summer and high gas prices, a correlation perhaps, not cause and effect, DHS and FEMA have no idea what they are supposed to be doing if civil disobedience becomes a major issue and twists into riots and civil disorders, both terms of art. And additionally STATE and LOCAL law enforcement and the Armed Services, active, reserve, and NG have virtually no understanding or training as to what to do or what they might be expected to do in riots and civil disorders. Few have read or been trained on the new DoJ guidance on civil disobedience issued by AG Holder.
So bottom line, are riots and civil disorders a HS issue? I would say yes but others might well disagree. Since the enactment of Public Law 875 of the 81st Congress, DRA of 1950, and its various successors NO repeat NO Presidential declaration of diaster or emergency has occurred based on Riots and Civil Disorders. Actually, DoJ has the policy call on this one not DHS or FEMA.

Comment by John Comiskey

April 10, 2012 @ 3:44 pm


The CRS’s recommendation to require a rewrite of the national homeland security strategy makes sense.
A biannual NSHS should be mandated and the QHSR should conform to the NSHS.
The NSS should also be mandated biannually: The NSHS would follow and conform to the NSS.
NSHSs should:
1. Define and prioritize HLS and its missions.
2. Identify HLS as a whole of nation endeavor: federal, state, local, tribal, public, private, and the citizenry.
3. Identify likely future threats and vulnerabilities: cyber, environmental, and the unknown.

BTW, the CRS report made its way into my Fall syllabi.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 10, 2012 @ 10:13 pm

Back to basics: DHS was supposed to have three (3) top priorities!
First, WMD [CBRNE?] prevention, protection, and response and recovery. Is there a single certified Health Physicist in all of DHS including FEMA?

Second, collection, analysis, and dissemination of domestic INTEL while protecting civil liberties, civil rights, and privacy! The FUSION CENTERS [72] continue to operate but unknown as to how successfully! Has Congress ever given oversight to the FC since they gained a statutory charter and mandate?

Third, Critical Infrastructure Protection [CIP] including cyber security! Hard to identify staffing and budget for this mission in DHS IMO.

Perhaps these programs, functions, and activities are well and thriving in DHS and I just missed it.

AS to the new FEMA I would argue it has not streamlined funding for grants, response or recovery but perhaps am wrong. Also I am not alone in believing that even with relatively full staffing it cannot handle some anticipated catastrophic events. I under the DAE concept is being terminated and a new Federal Response Corps is being created with current DAEs being given the option to join or else.

Perhaps I am wrong but as for bang for the buck I believe HHS and CDC are eating DHS and FEMA’s lunch as to actually preparedness and response capability and arguably health preparedness is coming to dominate the domestic civil preparedness landscape. Could it be that higher levels of education, training, skills and competencies are beginning to overshadow STATE and LOCAL HS grants without accountability? Even federal disaster relief is technically just grant administration with the pretension that it somehow is guided by expertise on response and recovery.

I posted a comment on another blog post recently that IMO 40% of all public assistance grants under the STAFFORD ACT go to replacement of water and sewer projects during flooding events declared as a Presidential disaster [over 80% of all disaster declarations are for flooding} and yet there are almost non people conversant with EPA standars or the Water Resources Principle and Standards [1983 but under revision] in DHS or FEMA. And FEMA is building hospitals like mad without HHS input which used to be required along with a certificate of need.

Well sometimes you get what you pay for and sometimes not.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 10, 2012 @ 10:56 pm

Post Script! While OMB considers drug enforcement budgets as part of HS and the ICE Directorate has a statutory role, drug enforcement is almost never mentioned as a program, function, or activity of DHS even though in the decade since 9/11/01 substantial links between the international drug trade and terrorism have been conclusively established. So what gives?

Comment by JM

April 10, 2012 @ 11:28 pm


Great post. I am glad that the CRS report has generated this level of discussion.


Comment by Shawn Reese

April 11, 2012 @ 8:12 am

I am also glad this CRS report has generated this level of discussion.

Comment by Michael Brady

April 12, 2012 @ 11:21 am


“[A]s we face a long hot summer and high gas prices…DHS and FEMA have no idea what they are supposed to be doing if civil disobedience becomes a major issue and twists into riots and civil disorders…”

Wow. Unless the Constitution is suspended what makes them think they are supposed to do anything? Civil disobedience, public disorder, and even riot are issues for city, county, and state law enforcement agencies (unless they occur on federal property). Even if the National Guard is mobilized, it will be under a chain of command that leads to the Governor’s mansion, not the Whitehouse.

The idea that effective “Homeland Security” means the federal government is required, or authorized, to look after every citizen’s safety at all times is self-fulfilling and dangerous. Homeland Security – as a concept and an organization – was the creation of politicians who were frightened they wouldn’t get reelected if they didn’t “Do something!” about the looming threat of transnational terrorism. Its purveyors envisioned creating defenses against, and mobilizing responses to, mushroom clouds over our great cities, jumbo jets falling from the skies over America, iconic buildings crumbling into their foundations, and biological warfare being waged from sea to shining sea, all perpetrated by people pretending to be our neighbors. The federal bureaucracies mounted their defenses, funded their mandates, gut-ripped our privacy protections, wrote torture memos, and defended their accumulated power against all comers. But the attacks never came.

Since our opponents in the Global War on Terror have not touched our Homeland again since the morning of September 11th, 2001, what are our options? Well, we might use the DHS to protect the nation from misbehavior in gas lines, corn blight, computer malware, or the Occupy Movement. Or, rather than repurposing this behemoth agency – and the questionable concept upon which it is based – perhaps the best thing to do is to carefully unwind it, undo the dangerous laws that made it possible, and restore to the states the concept that caring for our neighbors after a disaster is something best done at the local level.

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