Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Looking Back -- Homeland Security in 2012

      This is the twelfth year that I have done some sort of year end summary of homeland security (HLS) progress.  It has been by far the most difficult to prepare.

            Let me begin with good news about what did not happen.

·         In 2012 the United States did not suffer a major international or “home grown” terrorist attack. This is not because the enemy has quit trying to attack or ceased to exist. The Bengazi attack was a well-planned and well-coordinated act of international terrorism. The forces that prepared and conducted it remained focused on attacking us at home. That has not happened because of successful intelligence and Counter Terrorism efforts world-wide, to include DHS efforts. This is good news and those working national and domestic security at the federal, state and local levels deserve credit for the results.

·         The US did not suffer a crippling cyber attack (a “Cyber Pearl Harbor”) which defense officials tell us becomes more likely every day. Terrorists are not the only potential perpetrators – foreign states, transnational criminals, or even disgruntled insiders all pose a challenge. Whether we have been good or merely lucky remains to be seen, but the absence of a major event is a major victory.

Now two non-events that reflect news of a less positive nature.

·         For the second time in a row, an aggressive, high–profile presidential campaign was conducted where not one candidate in the primary or national presidential elections spoke the words ‘homeland security” a single time. Not one question was asked publicly about homeland security; not one public statement by any candidate addressed it. Even when presidential candidates talked about federal actions in response to Hurricane Sandy – clearly a DHS function – the words “homeland security” were not used.  Clearly the candidates believed that even mentioning homeland security to voters has more negative than positive connotations.

·         A major storm struck northeast population centers exactly as predicted years ago in the federal 15 National Planning Scenarios.  These scenarios were supposed to drive federal, state and local preparedness. But state and local officials failed take these scenarios, and their preparedness and response responsibilities seriously, resulting in major losses to individuals and our society. Yet the media failed to realize that something was wrong at the state/local level and let the responsible leaders escape public outrage over their sad performance.

Taken together, these four “non-happenings” indicate something significant about US homeland security: the national bureaucracy is becoming more competent and less visible (and thus less accountable) at the same time. From the Office of Information and Analysis (I&A), to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Border and Customs Protection (BCP), planning, budgeting, training and operations became more sophisticated and standardized this year – and less transparent. Public interest was down, so was reporting, and so was the ability of Congress to get answers to some pretty important questions.

·         When a congressional committee attempted to ask about TSA progress and practices, the head of the agency simply ignored the request to testify – without consequence. 

·         When DHS was asked about unusual purchases of more than a BILLION rounds of ammunition, the department produced several obviously incorrect answers, then quit answering the question at all. 

·         When spokespersons were asked whether 1600 graduates of the new “FEMA Corps” were employed in response to Hurricane Sandy, they simply sidestepped the question . . . and the press quit asking.

·         When questions were raised about what exactly we have received for more than a billion dollars of investment in biodefense, the answers were vague and incomplete.

·         Meanwhile, DHS and CBP continue to claim that the US southern border is “the safest in years,” to the guffaws of local law enforcement on both sides of the border.

To be clear, the DHS bureaucracy appears to become more competent at the ins and outs of administration each year. To their credit, DHS offices and officials were largely spared the public scandal that tainted so many other federal agencies in 2012. (The one astonishing exception was the Secret Service scandal in Colombia, which had all the hallmarks of a continuing, long term cultural problem, but which was addressed as a narrow, one time anomaly.) And once you understand that the role of the federal government is primarily to help RECOVER from a disaster, and NOT to act as a RESPONSE agency (response being primarily a state and local responsibility), then their efforts in Hurricane Sandy look relatively successful.

            My concern is that the broad degree of oversight that attends other federal security organizations (like DOD and the intelligence agencies) is largely missing in the case of DHS.  And this inattention is growing as the national media loses interest in homeland security issues, at the same time that DHS grows more adept at using classification and other forms of obfuscation to restrict information required for outside analysis.  

For the Secretary of Defense (Sec Def) and the Director of National Intelligence (DNO) this oversight is not provided only by Congress – or even primarily by the legislative branch. Hundreds of universities offer programs in security studies and international relations, dozens of think tanks review DOD strategy, operations and doctrine constantly, and many bloggers and independent observers (not to mention authors, reporters and specialty publications)  track and discuss Pentagon activities on a nearly real time basis. DOD may have some valid national security secrets, but at least until recently, the educational community and others offered theories, research and analysis, so they could enter into a national debate about DOD size, expenditures, and activities. Their work provides the basis for media education and public analysis, so the public and Congress may engage is debating how DOD does business.

            There is no such network for graduate level analysis of what DHS does and how it does it.

            Several hundred “civilian” colleges and universities are tied loosely to DHS through the University and Agency Partnership Initiative (UAPI) of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School.  And FEMA and other DHS agencies continued to invigorate their own internal training programs during 2012. But the broad sustained effort by which upper tier research institutions exchange ideas with the DOD, and even school senior defense leaders, is missing from the entire DHS homeland security effort.

            As a result, DHS is growing more technically proficient and more intellectually insulated from outside review and analysis at the same time. This approach paid off for DHS with some important successes in 2012. But the result does not bode well for the Department or the nation in the long run.

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