It’s Time to Clarify the Mission of DHS
Action Directives issued by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano her first day on the job talk about “the extensive number of vulnerabilities to manmade and natural disasters” and identifies the focus of the department’s efforts as “…the development of policies and programs to protect our nation and help it recover from natural and manmade disasters…” The use of those terms has extensive implications for how and what DHS does to protect the nation.
In so doing the Secretary is returning to the original intent of the legislation that established DHS in the first place.
Title 1, Section 101 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (download) defines the primary mission of the department to include dealing with “natural and manmade crises and emergency planning” in addition to terrorism. Unfortunately in its initial years DHS was heavily focused on terrorism and often ignored its all hazards mission. Interestingly if you go the DHS website the initial page discussing the Homeland Security Act only lists the counter-terrorism missions of DHS under Section 101. It’s only when you open the entire bill that you can see the all hazards aspect of the mission.
In the aftermath of hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires in recent years, such as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there had been a call for DHS to focus on an “all hazards” approach to homeland security, i.e. supporting preparation for all significant incidents that threaten the nation, whether manmade or natural. While there always has been some focus on that in the department, there is a lot of confusion about DHS’s mission. That is not surprising since DHS was established in the aftermath of the most devastating terrorist attacks ever experienced on U.S. soil and was designed as a key instrument in the “War on Terror.”
As a result, there was a lot of debate, much of it unresolved, as to whether the department’s mission was solely terrorism or to focus on dealing with all hazards. In fact, the failure to clarify that issue might have been one of the contributing factors in DHS’s poor response to Katrina.
So the response after Katrina to focus on all hazards makes a lot of sense. But despite this need, while the 2007 (and most recent) “National Strategy for Homeland Security” (download) recognizes the impact of natural disasters, those type of events are explicitly excluded from the definition of homeland security. According to the document; “Homeland Security is a concerted national effort to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce America’s vulnerability to terrorism and minimize the damage and recover from attacks that do occur.” And “This Strategy therefore recognizes that effective preparation for catastrophic natural disasters and man-made disasters, while not homeland security per se, can nevertheless increase the security of the Homeland”.
Rather than clarify things the document tends to confuse things further.
While the Secretary’s directives making clear that she is looking at homeland security as preparing for all events is an important step, it is time to clarify this issue explicitly and publicly. Why? The reason becomes clear what you look at the knee jerk responses to the horrific terrorist attack in Mumbai, India in late November. Even as that event was unfolding, the discussion about the mission of homeland security began to shift away from that of all hazards to that of focusing on terrorism.
For example, a December 3rd editorial in the The Washington Post entitled “Homeland Security Priorities: A chilling report highlights the agencies primary purpose,” prompted by the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India and the release of a report by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism discussing the increasing likelihood of an event involving a weapon of mass destruction, contended that the incoming DHS Secretary must focus the department on terrorism. And that the allocation of funding from the department should be based on the risk of a terrorist attack. This means that the majority of the funds would go to high risk cities like New York and Washington, D.C., which makes sense if the focus is on terrorism.
This is where things get confusing though. The reality is that if DHS’s mission was to deal with all hazards, then the definition of risk would have to change as well. Which would mean the method of allocation of funds would also change.
Note that most federally-declared disasters in the last 25 years happened in rural parts of the country, not the urban centers.
This is not meant to undermine the urgency of addressing the terrorist threat. In fact, the terrorist threat must be a primary focus of the Obama administration. However, DHS is only one of many entities that are focused on terrorism in an operational and preemptive manner. DHS houses five operational agencies that have an important role in terrorism prevention and those agencies must receive all the resources and support they need. And we must make certain that state and local agencies have all the resources and support they need as well because, let’s face it, their role in the preparing for terrorism is indispensable.
But the reality is that while a terrorist attack is possible, natural disasters are inevitable and seem to be occurring with increasing intensity.
In fact when it comes to response and recovery, whether it be manmade or natural, many of the requirements are the same. This applies to interoperable communications, information sharing, incident management, a common operating picture, the ability to deal with hazardous materials, to name a few. Indeed, a large part of the planning, capabilities and capacities are essentially the same.
Much of what it takes to prepare for terrorism is similar to what is required for preparing for a natural disaster. Of course, differences exist, such as those in intelligence gathering and dissemination, developing methods to counter explosive devices, and issues concerning chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Given this, it is important that Secretary Napolitano clarify DHS’s mission as soon as possible. That clarity will better enable the department to ensure that its plans and programs meet the needs of the entire homeland security mission.