The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Homeland Insecurity

Resiliency is the right theme for repairing the U.S. homeland security

Published on May 1, 2009

Is homeland security still on the nation’s radar screen? One can be excused for wondering. After all, we’re heading toward the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and so far al-Qaeda has yet to strike us again. The technicolor national threat level has been frozen at “yellow” since January 2004, and the new Secretary of Homeland Security, former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, has mused aloud that maybe it should be abandoned altogether. The issue was missing-in-action during the marathon 2008 presidential campaign. The presidential transition then came and went without the Obama Administration publicly outlining its plans for the homeland security mission, and there were no expressions of outrage or dismay from editorial pages or by media pundits. Indeed, the only media spark Secretary Napolitano has managed to generate during the early days of her tenure arose from something she didn’t do: She omitted the word “terrorism” from her prepared testimony before Congress on February 25, 2009.

So at first blush it seems as though an issue that consumed the entire country’s attention just a half dozen years ago somehow left Washington in one of former President George W. Bush’s White House moving boxes. But that’s not the case: The Bush team’s counterterrorism and homeland security legacy constitutes a political landmine for President Barack Obama, with the detonator set in Bush’s farewell address and exit interviews, which proclaimed as his one, indisputable accomplishment that Americans had been kept safe from acts of terrorism since 9/11. The implicit message was that President Obama would place the nation at risk if he did not embrace and build on the measures the Bush Administration had put in place. Lest the message be lost in the celebratory din of the Obama inauguration, former Vice President Dick Cheney made it explicit in a February 4, 2009 interview with Politico. He argued that there is a “high probability” that terrorists will attempt to deploy a nuclear weapon or biological agent in a major American city, and warned that policy changes leading away from the methods by which the Bush Administration combated terrorism would bolster the likelihood of a terrorist success.

So far, the Bush-Cheney parting shots have gone unanswered. Now that he is in the Oval Office, President Obama isn’t inclined to devote energy sparring with its former occupant, focusing instead on the wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan and coping with the economic crisis. Nevertheless, as the new Obama team settles in, it will soon find that the homeland security situation is no less a mess. Contrary to the public impression that the Bush Administration worked hard to convey, there is no carefully constructed apparatus for keeping America safe. Rather, what the Obama Administration has inherited is a flimsy façade of homeland security, behind which lies a deeply flawed strategy, a badly broken Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and a nation that remains dangerously unprepared to respond to catastrophic events. If put to a serious test, the homeland security system will fail, and the political fallout for the Obama presidency could be disastrous—to say nothing about the consequences for America. The White House needs to act aggressively to bridge the gap between the Bush Administration’s valedictory rhetoric and the reality of America’s ongoing vulnerabilities to terrorism and natural disasters.

The Neglected Homefront

In December 2008, Jeffrey Rosen penned an in-depth look at the Department of Homeland Security for the New Republic titled, “Man-Made Disaster.” Almost needless to say, Rosen’s conclusion was a damning one. After conducting several interviews with outgoing Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and chatting with security experts on both sides of the political divide (I was one of them), Rosen concluded that creating the Department was “a bureaucratic and philosophical mistake.”

While there is still room for debate over whether DHS was a philosophical mistake, there’s no question it has so far proven to be a bureaucratic failure. But this was inevitable because the Bush Administration was never seriously invested in making DHS an operational success. After the photo-ops accompanying its birth in November 2002, DHS was largely orphaned by the White House and Congress. Its headquarters today sprawls across the Nebraska Avenue Complex, a decrepit former U.S. Navy installation in Northwest Washington. One of my more memorable visits to this forlorn place was for a December 2005 meeting with then Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson. At the time, Jackson was the equivalent of the Chief Operating Officer of the third-largest Federal department in Washington. We were sitting in his office, a paragon of deferred maintenance, when our conversation was suddenly drowned out by a noise that sounded like a sledgehammer tearing into concrete pillars. Jackson apologetically explained that the noise actually came from a neighboring toilet that rattled the pipes violently whenever it was flushed.

Consigning the leadership of DHS to such moribund digs would have been a minor indignity if the Bush Administration had been truly committed to the homeland security mission. Three reasons explain why it never made that commitment. First, the Administration’s post-9/11 strategy was all about “taking the battle to the enemy.” As Bush so often said, “We fight the terrorists overseas so that we don’t have to fight them here at home.” Not surprisingly, this translated into DHS having only a rearguard role in the War on Terror. Even in that role it was essentially a bit player, since the lead for conducting domestic counterterrorism was assigned to the FBI, not DHS.

Second, the Bush Administration was wary that adding a new cabinet department to the Federal bureaucracy would draw criticism from conservative opponents of big government. At the same time, it worried that it might be outflanked on the homeland security issue by the opposition party, since Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat in good standing at the time, was getting considerable traction on Capitol Hill with his post-9/11 push to create DHS. The Bush White House decided that the best way to simultaneously neutralize Lieberman and potential conservative critics was to launch DHS as the government equivalent of a corporate merger, promising to extract savings by eliminating redundancies through folding 22 pre-existing agencies into one department.

One major consequence of this niggardly approach was to ensure that the leadership at the top of the Department lacked the staffing or resources to carry out their mission. Instead of creating a new cadre of career professionals devoted to homeland security, the Administration manned DHS with short-term government contractors, and ordered DHS’s operating agencies to loan out their senior managers on a one- and two-year assignment basis. To sweeten the deal for Republican partisans, top management slots were reserved for 300 political appointees—more than any other Federal department has, including the Department of Defense. The result has been a revolving door of managers and support personnel: Today, less than one-quarter of the DHS headquarters staff has been there for more than two years.

Third, the Bush White House had no appetite for managing the complex and politically untidy interagency, state, local and private-sector issues that are part-and-parcel of the homeland security mission. Some thirty Federal departments and agencies have been assigned specific responsibilities to support homeland security. For instance, the Pentagon has defined its niche as “homeland defense”, for which it receives annual funding equal to roughly three-quarters of the total budget for DHS. Managing disease outbreaks falls to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention within the Department of Health and Human Services. The Bush Administration also assigned the task of coordinating homeland security activities across the U.S. government not to the DHS departmental leadership, but to a Homeland Security Council in the Executive Office of the President. But that council was never adequately staffed or empowered to manage the interagency process.

Messier still are the federalism and private-sector equities that go with homeland security. By definition, the territorial U.S. homeland is the sum of fifty state jurisdictions. Additionally, within these states lies the nation’s critical infrastructure, which is overwhelmingly owned and operated by private entities. These jurisdictional realities created ideological dissonance for the Bush Administration: If the Federal government was to be fully mobilized to play an active role in homeland security, it risked trampling on what has been traditionally state, local or private-sector turf. The Bush team’s solution for this dilemma was to largely avoid these issues altogether. Instead of crafting new Federal-state and private-public arrangements for protecting critical domestic assets and improving the nation’s ability to respond to and recover from catastrophic events, the Bush Administration chose a “go-it-alone” strategy built around expanding the authority of intelligence to combat terrorist networks at home and abroad. Everyday Americans were essentially told, for their part, to keep traveling and go shopping.

President Bush’s lackluster approach to homeland security largely went unnoticed by the American people. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, efforts to reform the intelligence community, and the treatment of detainees in Guantánamo Bay instead commanded the attention of official Washington and the media. Meanwhile, the ongoing vulnerability of the nation’s critical infrastructure to 9/11-style attacks, and the limited capacity of states and major cities to respond to large man-made or natural disasters, remained out of the public eye—that is, until Hurricane Katrina roared ashore in late August 2005. Even in the wake of the debacle of New Orleans, Washington had the perfect scapegoat in the person of FEMA Director Michael Brown. As a result, few thought seriously about how a nation supposedly on a war-footing could have been so badly prepared to cope with a long-predicted catastrophic event that arrived onshore with plenty of notice.

In short, despite the rhetoric of the past seven years, when it comes to reducing America’s exposure to the threat and consequences of terrorism within U.S. borders, there is not much “there” there, behind the homeland security curtain. This places President Obama in a perilous position. Since homeland security wasn’t an issue in the campaign, the Bush Administration was never faulted for its neglect of the homefront, and the American public believes we’re safer than we really are. President Obama has been set up to be blamed for all the shortcomings that he has inherited when disaster strikes again.

Building National Resilience

What, then, should President Obama do to get out of this predicament? First, he needs to reject the Bush Administration’s formulation that protecting Americans boils down to building a muscular national security apparatus that can do the dirty business of tracking down and destroying terrorists abroad. Instead, the Obama Administration should embrace the lesson of United Airlines Flight 93, the hijackers’ fourth plane, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field. That plane’s passengers prevented al-Qaeda from achieving its likely objective of striking the U.S. Capitol or the White House, and they did it without any help from the U.S. government. No Federal Air Marshals were aboard the aircraft. The Defense Department’s North American Aerospace Defense Command didn’t even know the plane had been hijacked. It was instead private citizens who achieved the only verifiably foiled catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil during the Bush Administration’s eight-year tenure. It is both ironic and inspirational that the Legislative and Executive Branches of the U.S. government, whose constitutional duty is “to provide for the common defense”, were themselves defended that day by an alert and heroic citizenry.

As the Flight 93 story ought to make clear, it is shortsighted and counterproductive not to engage the American people in the enterprise of managing threats to the nation. As a stepping off point, President Obama needs to publicly redefine the means and ends of the homeland security mission. He should use his considerable gifts of communication to recalibrate the American people’s expectations of what the Federal government can reasonably be expected to do. He should also challenge us to share in the responsibility of bolstering the nation’s resilience in the face of all hazards, not just man-made ones. This will require him to be truthful in acknowledging that the threat of terrorism can never be fully eradicated, even as he makes clear that its risks and consequences can be successfully managed. Further, since 90 percent of Americans live in places that have a moderate to high risk of experiencing natural disasters, he should also focus the Federal government on the task of improving emergency preparedness and building greater societal resilience. These are sound investments in our long-term safety and well-being even if terrorists never strike us again.

Resilience is easy to spot. It is on display in Israel whenever there is a suicide bombing. After the victims are evacuated, clean-up crews descend to clear out the physical wreckage, make immediate repairs and re-open the site to daily traffic within hours. Londoners showed their resilience in the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 suicide attacks on the Underground and city bus system. The terrorists’ objective was to cripple the city’s public transportation system; resolute citizens foiled this plot just by showing up for the next morning’s commute. One defeats terrorist tactics by working to minimize terror, which arises from a feeling of unbounded vulnerability and powerlessness. By empowering people to cope with disasters, they will be less afraid when things do go wrong—which of course will happen from time to time. It really is as simple as that.

Building national resilience, however, will require much more than the President’s use of the bully pulpit. It requires a sustained national commitment to building the upfront robustness to mitigate the risks of a foreseeable hazard, a readiness to swiftly respond and recover from disaster and, once the dust clears, the willingness to adapt in light of lessons learned.

The first element of resilience, robustness, involves the ability to keep operating, to bend but not break, in the face of disaster. The Obama Administration’s plans for reinvesting in infrastructure, health care and energy as a part of its economic stimulus effort provides an historic opportunity to design structures and systems strong enough to handle the stress of disasters. Alternatively, robustness can be achieved by assigning top priority to projects that enhance redundancies in critical systems. At the societal level, robustness entails investing in basic services like public safety, public health and emergency management to handle low-probability, high-impact events.

Readiness, the second component, is the process of building a level of preparedness to identify and manage challenges once a disaster unfolds. It includes the ability to nimbly identify options and prioritize both damage control and initial remedial action, followed by the ability to communicate those decisions to the people who must act on them. Readiness depends primarily on planning and people, not technology. It means providing adequate resources to the National Guard, the Red Cross, emergency room staffs and other emergency planners and first responders to whom people turn when they cannot help themselves.

The third component of resilience is rapid recovery: the capacity to get things back to normal as quickly as possible after the disaster-level forces are gone. Carefully drafted and well-exercised contingency plans, competent emergency operations, and the means to get the right people and resources to the right places are the key ingredients to a swift recovery. Communities like Charleston, Gulfport and Memphis are organizing themselves with the support of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to be able to quickly bounce back from catastrophic events under a program known as the Community and Regional Resilience Initiative (CARRI). The goal of CARRI is to identify the processes and tools needed to restore the community’s ability to provide essential services, allowing businesses and schools to re-open as soon as possible after a disaster.

Finally, resilience requires adaptation. In other words, there needs to be an appetite for learning the lessons that disaster teaches. A foolish society is one that goes right back to “business as usual”, rebuilding homes on floodplains or underinvesting in public safety and health. People must be willing to make pragmatic changes to improve robustness, resourcefulness and recovery in time to meet the next disaster.

What distinguishes a focus on societal resilience from a national effort centered on security is that it involves moving beyond the secretive, highly centralized and overly federalized approach that the Bush Administration embraced. It requires instead a far more open and inclusive process that taps America’s greatest strengths: its civil society and its private sector. Further, while security usually incurs upfront costs, investments in resilience almost always provide a positive return. As a June 2007 Council on Competitiveness report documents, resilient communities and companies are inherently more productive, innovative, competitive and desirable places to live and work.

Ironically, on the very day of Bush’s farewell address, just the kind of resilience we should have been pursuing on a national scale was on display in the Hudson River, where US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing. New York Governor David Patterson got it completely wrong when he dubbed the incident “the Miracle on the Hudson.” This was no miracle. The aviation industry designed the plane to be able to survive a waterborne landing and invested in training for just this kind of low-probability, high-impact contingency. The pilot and flight crew knew what they were supposed to do, and they did it. The passengers had been briefed on how to safely evacuate during an emergency landing, so they had some advance idea of what steps they needed to take when flight attendants issued directions during the incident. The first rescuers on the scene were commuter ferries that, by regulation, carry basic water-rescue equipment. The ferry crews had received training on recovering people gone overboard. Next came the local first responders, who were assisted by the Federal government in the form of the U.S. Coast Guard. In the end, upfront investments in robustness and readiness and responsible action by everyday citizens meant that not a single life was lost in the crash. Heroism helps, of course, but it cannot substitute for institutionalized readiness. When it comes to protecting American lives, our greatest national asset is not our second-to-none national security establishment led by the Commander-in-Chief; it is an engaged and resilient civil society.

Practical Steps

Beyond emphasizing resilience, the Obama Administration can take five practical steps to put the Federal homeland security mission in better order.

First, it must professionalize DHS. This will require converting a significant number of DHS political positions to career positions, taking the Department in the direction of other national security organizations like the CIA and the FBI. In the near term, talented managers from outside DHS need to be recruited to address serious shortfalls in competency and expertise. The Federal government must also pay far more attention to providing resources for the recruitment, training, education and professional development of DHS personnel. In addition, DHS is too dependent on a contractor work force even for performing core functions like contractor oversight (yes, they have contractors to watch the contractors) and the development of budget and strategy documents. Contracting out core functions costs about the same as it would to hire more government staff, but it comes at the expense of building long-term institutional capacity.

Second, the new Administration should also change the allocation of the resources DHS receives, which is now skewed toward costly acquisition programs, leaving the Department without enough funding to invest in its most important asset: its people. Specifically, many of the border control initiatives that were advanced in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 should be re-examined. The fact is that Federal border control measures will always be of limited counterterrorism value for two reasons. One is that the number of terrorist operatives U.S. authorities are trying to intercept is miniscule compared to the nearly half-billion people who pass through U.S. ports of entry each year, and the geographical expanse of America’s frontiers (95,000 miles of coastline and 7,000 miles of land borders with Canada and Mexico) render farcical the idea that we can fence it all in. Searching for a needle in a haystack isn’t quite the right analogy; it’s more like trying to find a specific grain of sand on the seashore. The second reason is that border control measures inevitably become rote and ritualistic, which means they can be evaded by people who have the time, resources and motivation to do so.

Third, beyond internal DHS adjustments, the Administration needs to address the huge asymmetry between the resources provided to the Defense Department to carry out its “homeland defense” mission and those provided to DHS for its “homeland security” mission. Even a cursory analysis shows that the amounts given to the Defense Department aren’t as sound an investment as a commensurate investment in DHS, or in state and local government capabilities. Consider the $12 billion budget that the Pentagon devoted to missile defense research in 2008. That’s more than ten times the amount that DHS received for all its interdiction programs combined. There is universal consensus within the intelligence community that the threat of a nuclear weapon arriving in the United States via smuggling is far greater than the threat of a missile carrying one into our airspace. Federal spending, however, does not reflect this fact.

In some instances, the imbalance in defense spending actually exacerbates the security risk to the general population. For instance, the Pentagon received approximately $10 billion in 2007 to invest in protective measures for military bases and assets on U.S. soil, while DHS received only $750 million to support critical infrastructure protection grants for the nation’s “high-risk urban areas.” True, this spending imbalance probably reduces the risk that terrorists will target U.S. military forces within U.S. borders, but it does so at the expense of making civilian infrastructure relatively more vulnerable and therefore more attractive targets. More directly, the frequent deployment of National Guard units to Iraq and Afghanistan has eroded their ability to support civilian efforts in times of disaster and domestic emergency. The Obama Administration will need to identify the desired balance between the Guard’s overseas role and its domestic one.

Fourth, beyond these Federal efforts, the White House needs to make a concerted effort to draw upon the American people’s legacy of grit, volunteerism and ingenuity in the face of adversity. Ordinary citizens and private companies should be asked to do more to protect themselves and to help others during emergencies.

One way that people can lend a hand is by participating in the Citizens Corps program. Citizen Corps is an umbrella organization for local community emergency response teams (CERT), medical reserve corps, neighborhood watch groups, fire corps and volunteers in police services. Through these councils, citizens band together with local emergency responders to improve their knowledge, skills and ability to support their own and other communities when disasters strike. CERT provides twenty hours of training to volunteers in basic first aid, management of utilities and small fires, organization of spontaneous volunteers, and the collection of disaster intelligence to support emergency responders. There are more than 2,000 Citizen Corps Councils located in all fifty states and six U.S. territories, but the annual Federal funding to support their activities has been just $15 million—roughly what taxpayers have been spending per hour over five years on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama Administration should commit to a tenfold increase in funding to support the expansion of Citizen Corps chapters and activities around the nation.

Partnering with state and local officials is also key to building greater national capacity for managing large risks. But doing so requires that the new Administration hold the Federal bureaucracy’s feet to the fire. The most common complaint by the men and women who are on the front lines of local law enforcement is that information-sharing with the Federal government is a one-way street: the locals pass along information and get little to nothing in return. One important limiting factor is the Federal security clearance system, which dates to the Cold War. It was built around a “need-to-know” rather than a “need-to-share” imperative, which is better suited to the current security environment. Congress and the White House need to overhaul the existing legislative and bureaucratic rules for issuing security clearances and classifying and handling sensitive information to make it more inclusive and effective.

Fifth, greater outreach to individual citizens and local and state officials should be combined with much more serious efforts to engage the private sector, which owns and operates 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure. One major barrier to public-private cooperation has been the “tragedy of the commons” problem associated with excessive reliance on voluntary standards and best practices. Security measures have a cost. When these costs are not mandatory, those who “do the right thing” risk being placed at a competitive disadvantage relative to free-riders. There are only two ways around this problem: The government must either devise a more forceful regulatory approach while still involving the private sector in the rulemaking process, or it must provide direct or indirect financial incentives to promote compliance. Given the economic stress U.S. companies are currently experiencing, tax incentives seem like the right option for the time being. That said, any regulatory approach will generate some countervailing pressure from the private sector. But these issues can be managed, if not entirely eliminated, by investing in DHS liaisons who have the expertise to formalize relationships throughout industry sectors.

A determination to confront ongoing exposure to catastrophic disasters is not an act of pessimism or paranoia. Rather it is a mature recognition that things go wrong from time to time, and that we need to prepare for such times. There is an upside, beyond increased security, to placing greater emphasis on national resilience. Focusing on resilience elevates the value of investing in other policy priorities, for example. Reinvesting in our infrastructure is not only helpful as economic stimulus; it will also make the critical foundations of our economy and society more durable in the face of natural and man-made disasters. And a focus on building a more resilient society immunizes us against overreacting when disasters occur, thereby allowing us to remain true to our ideals no matter what the future may bring.

Alternatively, neglecting homeland security is like living on a flood plain without carrying flood insurance. It is undoubtedly tempting for the Obama Administration to set aside the homeland security mess it has inherited while it attends to the many other pressing challenges that command its attention. But inevitably there will be a major hurricane, earthquake, disease outbreak or terrorist attack on President Obama’s watch. If the Administration does nothing to rectify the broken system it has inherited, it will not escape the political reckoning that will follow that next disaster. Beyond Washington, lives will be needlessly lost, and property will be unnecessarily destroyed. There is no upside to postponing the imperative to rebuild a more resilient nation.

Stephen E. Flynn is the Ira A. Lipman Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and National Security at the Council on Foreign Relations. The discussion of resilience draws on material from The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation (Random House, 2007).