Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 20, 2014

“HLS is in its adolescence”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on January 20, 2014

Last week there was a brief but vigorous discussion on the Friday Free Forum.  Dan O’Connor, who I only know from his prior blog comments, offered a framing of Homeland Security that I found helpful,  sadly sobering, and — at least potentially — redemptive. I received Dan’s permission to re-publish on the “front page”.  You can revisit the original context of his comment here.  I hope discussion might continue and involve others.


When HLS is a by and large dictated Federal idea or disposition, it almost by default must take on the legalese or “bureaucratic stupor” of Washington because that is the expected language.

Even if we were to speak in metaphor, HLS is in its adolescence and within that context trying to find its place. John obviously goes to great length to point out the source documents for a formalized definition and structure. However, the idea of HLS leaves much to be desired.

The HLS enterprise or community, depending on ones’ predilection or syntax has much it can address for future relevance.

Its exercise and evaluation process is broken…inexorably broken. It’s contrived and scripted to such a degree that not a lot is accomplished annually. Is that because leaders do not want to be embarrassed by the lack of capability and potency or…because it’s been dutifully bureaucratized? The idea of a centralized exercise program is reasonable in a bureaucracy because so many hope to control the outcome. That’s not real.

Also, there seems to be a lack of adaptability and nimbleness in the construct. I like Rafe Sagarin’s biological disposition and ideas in this regard. So if we are not adaptive, decentralized, and nimble, the gaps created by Bill’s “bureaucratic stupor” become hardened, calcified if you will, and permanent. That is vulnerability. Instead of addressing these gaps we continue to reinforce antiquated ideas of what is security and threats, paying lip service instead of attention. Perhaps an overstatement on my part, but resilience and adaptation are far more important than the biannual review of Federal Continuity Directive 1 (FCD1)…

And DHS has issues with hiring qualified people. Yes morale stinks and yes, DHS will again be voted the worst place to work in the Federal Government. Initial numbers from the annual survey are still trending down. Survey’s being what they are may skew the reality a bit, but with 40% of its leadership positions unfilled and no qualified and quantified idea on how to develop HLS professionals should be a cause for concern.

Political patronage is destroying any semblance of vertical opportunity and the risk averse culture and professional bureaucrat stymies initiative. Look carefully at the leadership positions within DHS and one will see hundreds of political appointees.

It’s the nature of the beast sure, but it does not lend itself to growing and developing capable subordinates that will rise through the ranks. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare to the DoD but Generals are selected from Colonels and Colonels from Major’s, and Majors from …well, it’s pretty clear that there is a system in place that screens, evaluated, and prepared leaders and operators.
Unfortunately the OPM and organizational nepotism and cronyism make the organization unlikely to get well rounded, mature, and critical thinkers and operators.

I know there are exceptions to this, but the building of an organization, training and educating them, and preparing them for uncertainty has been left to what many would say are amateurs. Again, perhaps a bit unfair, but it is something that should be discussed. I know people who have great experience, graduated from CHDS and have unbelievable achievements who have applied for hundreds of Federal jobs with no interviews. It becomes a bit surreal. It also has its effect on both the attitude and opinion of the HLS but more specifically DHS enterprise.

It may be a function of its maturation but these are some of the challenges you who contribute to this blog illuminate daily.

So the real discussion I’d like to hear about are expectations too high or should we continue to expect a lessening of impact and relevance, so much so that DHS and HLS become as relevant as the Bureau of Engraving and Printing? No disrespect to the B.E.P.

Are these the growing pains an organization kluged together after an attack should have anticipated or has the entire idea of homeland security become so boiler plated in rhetoric and contrived that potency and capability are diminishing every day? Growing up is tough. I guess that’s why they call it growing pains and not joys!

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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 20, 2014 @ 3:39 am

WOW! Adolesence? How about “diapers”? Does any portion of DHS need to be an HRO [Highly Reliable Organization]?

I would answer that any portion of DHS that provides a safety net to the American people [meaning good and services not available anywhere else] needs to be an HRO! Do we have any analysis that might result in this kind of focus? Perhaps the QHSR?

There may be a unique opportunity for Secretary Johnson to line draw between DoD and DHS missions, functions, and activities! IMO a small dedicated staff function in DHS might be created to avoid duplication and overlaps with DoD! Think of potential savings if DoD and DHS contracts were cross-matched for duplications? NO WAY WOULD CONTRACTORS DO THIS!

How recently has DHS surveyed the STATES for their actual or desired products and services from DHS or is only money with the lowest possible common denominator of controls possible?

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 20, 2014 @ 3:45 am

And Dan and Phil IMO the DHS charter is a moisaic allowing flexibility in design and operations!

Too often DHS views it charter not as devolving bureaucratic discretion but as failing to mandate priorities.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

January 20, 2014 @ 4:04 am

“Perhaps it’s unfair to compare to the DoD but Generals are selected from Colonels and Colonels from Major’s, and Majors from …well, it’s pretty clear that there is a system in place that screens, evaluated, and prepared leaders and operators.”

It’s more than unfair, it’s not even rational. DoD has only existed since the end of WWII. But the services that for the most part make up the Department have existed for so much longer (with the obvious exception of the Air Force).

A Major in the Air Force does not get promoted up to a Colonel in the Army. That is not even getting into the complexity of “purple” or Goldwater-Nichols.

Even State, the oldest cabinet department, still struggles with the culture clash of it’s foreign service officer corp (the officer/professional rank I suppose) and it’s “civilian” employees.

The idea of an adaptive DHS able to react to the ever elusive “enemy” has existed since the beginning of the department. Very sexy. Always sounding great from the podium or table at the front of the room.

Unfortunate, at least for those with the responsibility for actually establishing a foundation upon which to get work accomplished.

Comment by John Comiskey

January 20, 2014 @ 5:28 am

HLS Adolescence: Priorities and Transition

IMHO, the US Coast Guard is the quintessential HLS organization and the nation’s national guards are a close second. Full transparency, I served in the USCG Reserve for 20 years in both Active and Reserve duty status.

The USCG’s eleven missions transcend, in varying degrees, every HLS bureaucratic boundary that I know of.

• The USCG is exempt from Posse Comitatus

• Can be fully integrated into the Navy and was so in WWI and WWII. Coasties can now be Navy Seals too

•Recognized under international law to board foreign vessels (in most cases the Navy is not)

• Operates as a full member of the IC in AND as one of DHS’ 22agencies

• Conducts federal LE operations and joint federal-state LE operations

• Conducts sea air rescues (USCG Katrina success story: 25,000 + documented saves)

• Conducts environmental regulatory and recovery operations (Exxon Valdez and DWH to name a few) and living marine resources too

• Others TBD

National guards are exempt from Posse Comitatus when operating in their own states and are often federalized for US military operations.

The USCG and National Guards are multi-mission agencies that require a unique TRANSITIONING-capability: can transition from warfighter to humanitarian aid provider. They must be nimble knowing that they often do both missions in the same hour.

To Bill’s inquiry, the National Governors Association surveyed state HLS advisors from 2003-2009. The last survey that was released (to my knowledge) was in 2009.

The 2009 survey spoke about all-hazards and the then recent H1N1 pandemic threat. See:

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 20, 2014 @ 8:13 am

Thanks John and Arnold!

To Arnold: Has the officer selection and promotion system resulted since WWII in the success of the USA waging organized violence against its “enemies”?

To John: Is the Coast Guard adequately funded in staff and equipment today?

To John: Over 50 “expert” studies of the NG have been conducted since WWII. Primarily under DoD auspices. Even FEMA through NAPA studied the NG and that study concluded STATE NG roles should be primary. NG units and individuals were heavily activated for Iraq and Afghanistan this Century after intensive training. Few NG units were activated for the Viet Nam war or Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

As I have reported on this blog previously the NG role in humanitarian assistance during declared disasters and otherwise is critical to the STATES.

Perhaps even more important is the NG role in supplementing STAND THEIR LOCAL GOVERNMENTS in LAW ENFORCEMENT EMERGENCIES!

See 28 CFR Part 65!

So in our informal analysis let’s separate out the Coast Guard and the NG and determine what the rest of DHS contibutes to the HLS enterprise!

And did the first QHSR even discuss the Coast Guard or NG? Will the current effort?

Comment by John Comiskey

January 20, 2014 @ 9:06 am


USCG and NG do operate under different laws, rules, and assumptions. IMHO, NGs are underutilized by states.

I combined USCG and NG here to demonstrate what I refer to as the HLS-transition-imperative. HLS practitioners often change missions in the same hour.

After 14 years of watching my two children play soccer (pee-wee through high school), I value highly soccer players ability to transition from offense to defense and vice versa. Notably, this comes from a die hard football fan that cares little for soccer.

Hard to determine “adequately funded.” I have heard from several senior officers that USCG is too honest when requesting funding, i.e. members of Congress tell Sector commanders that they should ask for more than they reasonably expect to get.

Semper Paratus

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 20, 2014 @ 9:35 am

John! Thanks! One of the great secrets of Washington! Funding of NG by federal government even when not in federalized status 90-95% of costs of salaries, benefits, equipment and training!

To have the STATES utilize the NG more might raise questions.

Comment by Donald Quixote

January 20, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

Thank you for a great posting.

Is this not what homeland security is intended to be – anything and everything you want it to be (and sometimes more)? I know that I have greatly tenderized this paper-thin dead horse through many previous postings ranging from the number of DHS political appointees to the lack of a common definition and vision for the enterprise. It is just very hard to accept that so few find concern with the current status as long as the checks clear and nothing blows-up on their watch.

I strongly concur with your observations, but what makes a person qualified for a homeland security position? Do they need any previous homeland security experience (whatever that entails)? So few appear to possess this experience prior to accepting the highest positions, but apparently it does not matter.

It is interesting how many political appointees there are in DHS as compared to the other departments. Does this very large number provide the opportunity to change course quickly in a large and complex department or ensure weak succession management without a consistent culture and vision? Both?

Comment by Dan O'Connor

January 20, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

Not from the podium Arnold but a point of view. And I think it is rational if one is trying to build future leaders and thinkers. At the very least the conversation should be had and some type of thought should be put towards future and strategic leader development.

The Department of Defense at least has a feeding, developing, and culling process to determine who will be leaders and attempts to prepare them. Clearly it is not perfect but its movement and an idea. And it is older, but does provide a model to at least examine.

Perhaps I developed my illustration poorly but there is mechanism I believe that attempts to grow and develop leaders and thinkers…And it’s an opinion based on participation in both the DoD and HLS enterprise. They are vastly, vastly different. For me DHS and much of the HLS enterprise have no idea how to develop leaders, skill sets, and capability.

Another overstatement on my part? Perhaps, but my observation is based on several years at the state level and another 6 or so at the Federal level. That’s why it often feels like a paper drill or annual “…lets defend our existence drill…” A little sarcastic on my part, but my observation nonetheless.

I don’t think that should be a surprise per se, but I have transitioned from one to another so that’s where I draw my illustration and comments from.

Your comment;

“The idea of an adaptive DHS able to react to the ever elusive “enemy” has existed since the beginning of the department. Very sexy. Always sounding great from the podium or table at the front of the room. Unfortunate, at least for those with the responsibility for actually establishing a foundation upon which to get work accomplished.”

I find the comment provocative because to assume there cannot be an adaptive DHS is tantamount to surrendering to the idea that it’s obsolete and cannot grow. Is that your contention or was that simply a dig? I don’t see having an ability to adjust on the fly, being innovative and adaptive as sexy as much as a necessity.

I don’t think the “enemy” you speak of is necessary elusive as it is avoided. We can choose to disagree, but I can assure you there are those who believe an adaptive DHS is conceivable.

And to your other point; I am intimately familiar with Goldwater Nichols having been subject to it. And, at least conceptually an Army Colonel/Air Force Colonel/Navy Captain can command a joint compilation or task force.

In fact I have been part of several. So while a Marine Corps Major may not be able to fly an Air Force fighter he can conceptually lead a squadron of pilots who can do so. And there is statutory law and Congressional mandates to have a rank structure and education that prepare one for this potential opportunity. And I must say, the “joint” world is highly rewarding and cuts through a lot of the service politics and BS.

I enjoyed my joint tours because it was about completing the mission and not my service predilections.

I’m not sure what makes an exceptional HLS leader or “operator”. I have my ideas and opinions as you, John, Don, Bill, Phil et al. I know leadership can be taught and intellect can be cultivated. Leadership is also about doing and I don’t see a lot of doing. I see a lot of justification.

That may be the unbelievable pain that comes with having 108 total committees and subcommittees with oversight over the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Curiosity, sense of purpose, ethos, Esprit etc. could be tougher to grow, but it should not be simply dismissed.

These challenges or scenarios need light and fuel to mature. Thanks so much for great questions and push back.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

January 20, 2014 @ 7:21 pm


“IMHO, the US Coast Guard is the quintessential HLS organization and the nation’s national guards are a close second. Full transparency, I served in the USCG Reserve for 20 years in both Active and Reserve duty status.”

I think you would be more correct than most would want to admit. The understanding and flex from title 10 to title 32, the capability of mission set, and the recognition and growing relevance of USCG as first responders, joint operators, and the ability to operate in green and blue water makes them versatile and valuable.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 21, 2014 @ 5:49 am

Dan and all: The issue of “thwarted” leadership is interesting to me, probably pushes some personal buttons.

I certainly agree that leadership gives priority to people. Leadership is a cognitive/emotional reagent that engages and potentially causes reactions in a social sub-set (individuals to groups) in a particular context and, often, for a particular purpose.

Perhaps overly influenced by my chemical analogy, leadership can be thwarted in several ways:

Insufficient quantity for environment, essentially diluted away.

Inappropriate match for environment, so for example servant leadership when crisis leadership is needed.

Inappropriate match or insufficient quantity for purpose. Sulfur, salt peter and charcoal in different proportions produce considerably different outcomes. Add even a tiny bit of something else and yet different outcomes are produced. Reagents are added with a hypothesis, with an envisioned outcome in mind. You keep adjusting the reagents depending on null hypotheses generated.

In chemistry reagents are generally reactants, solvents, or catalysts. I wonder if we over-use solvents and under-use reactants (servant leadership) and catalysts (change agents). Solvents are effective as stabilizing agents. Stabilization can be an appropriate goal of leadership. But it depends on context and purpose.

I am thinking out-loud, not sure where I might be going, and have run out of time. Not sure if this is worth anything, but I will still push submit

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