Washington Insiders Question Federal Role In Homeland Security

By Sandra I. Erwin

The giant federal agency that emerged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has helped the nation cope with countless security crises over the past decade. But times have changed, and the Department of Homeland Security has not adjusted to the challenges of the new century, contend former DHS officials and analysts in a new book.

DHS’ federal-centric governance is an outdated hierarchical model that is ill-suited to the post-industrial digital age, says John Fass Morton, a national security analyst and author of a soon-to-be-released book titled “Next-Generation Homeland Security: Network Federalism and the Course to National Preparedness,” published by the U.S. Naval Institute.

DHS was a “quick fix” that Congress and the public demanded after the 9/11 attacks, says Morton. But national emergencies during the past decade, such as Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, exposed the weaknesses of the DHS horizontal interagency organization, which does not blend well with the entities that do the heavy lifting in homeland security: state and local governments, the private sector and non-governmental organizations, he argues.

Tom Ridge, the nation’s first secretary of homeland security, endorses this view. In the book’s foreword, Ridge calls for a decentralization of homeland security policy making. The current Beltway-centric model, he says, does not work. “To whatever degree some might think, the federal government in Washington cannot manage a response to a regional catastrophe,” Ridge says. During his three-year tenure as head of DHS, Ridge says he tried, unsuccessfully, to “regionalize” the agency in order to be close to the communities that it would have to serve.

“We were proposing to break too many rice bowls,” he says. His plan “died a death of a thousand cuts.”

The concept of “next-generation” homeland security that Morton proposes is not an indictment of big government, Ridge says. It simply is a call for the federal government to allow state and local players, as well as the private sector, to make decisions that could help improve emergency response and disaster preparedness. “We make America less resilient, less secure, if we allow Washington to remain her single point of failure,” Ridge contends.

In a statement in response to questions from National Defense, Ridge elaborates:

“We need to ensure that homeland security is not viewed as a federal ‘entity’ or an inside-the-beltway institution,” he says. “Homeland security is a national mission. … State and local governments, NGOs, faith-based organizations, and the private sector all contribute to the overall response. Policies decided in Washington require input from these non-federal partners to ensure unity of effort.”

DHS has to be more inclusive in how it plans for post-disaster efforts, Ridge says. “The people who are actually engaged in response and recovery must be more involved in developing the framework in which they are expected to operate, and have more freedom to act in the communities they know best.”

The most important role that the federal government plays in homeland security is a financial one, says Ridge. States depend on federal dollars to recover from crises, but that does not mean the feds are best qualified to manage emergencies, he adds. “From my experience, the issue is not that ‘big government’ is ill-equipped to manage crises so much as state and local entities are often better suited for the task.”

The federal government cannot be a local responder, says Ridge. “However, the federal government does have a role to play and, more often than not, it is a financial one. The real cost of a recovery is beyond the capacity of states, and especially local communities, to address. Therefore, the federal government is expected to provide some kind of a safety net.”

There should be closer partnerships between the federal, state, and local governments, as well as with the private sector, in order to have an effective response, says Ridge. “There are roles and responsibilities for every entity involved. Any response should be a collaborative effort, with first responders at the local level taking the lead — not Washington.”

Morton says the current organization fuels mistrust and turf warfare.

“Somehow, the state and local governments, and the private sector and NGOs have to be brought into the policy making, not as an afterthought to respond to policy documents drafted by the federal government. They need to be engaged as coequal partners from the start.”

One of the book’s chapters deals with the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Morton credits the federal government for appointing a competent manager, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, to oversee the response. But it soon became clear that the federal government’s one-size-fits-all approach would not work in a situation that affected several states. “Decisions made in Mobile [Alabama] were not the right decisions for Florida,” says Morton.

The DHS bureaucracy also makes inefficient use of billions of federal grant dollars, he says. Federal grants are given to state and local governments to fund research and development of new technology, or purchases of equipment. “It’s not working,” Morton says. “Instead of promoting collaboration, you have these oversight issues where the federal government doesn’t trust the information that is coming back from state and locals, and is looking over its shoulder constantly,” he says. “State and local agencies have to dedicate scarce resources to prepare reports that will keep them on the right side of the congressional committees, DHS and the Office of Management and Budget.”

The grants system foments an adversarial relationship, Morton says.

A former Federal Emergency Management Agency official under the Bush administration, Marko Bourne, says DHS since its inception in 2002 has struggled with how to integrate its operations with the states.

When DHS was first formed there was talk about organizing into “super regions,” but that created a bureaucratic challenge, says Bourne. “The real work in homeland security is done in state and local governments,” he says, “But how do you regionalize without threatening sovereignty?” There is no such thing as top-down command and control, Bourne says. “You really can’t do it under our constitution.”

Bourne, who works as a homeland security consultant, says DHS was the right thing to do a decade ago, but it might now be time to rethink how it could be better organized. “Our notions of what works and what doesn’t have evolved,” he says. The 9/11 attacks presented unique challenges. “What was done at the time was based on the understanding at the time,” Bourne says.

Dennis Schrader, also a former FEMA official, says DHS has to be concerned about being prepared for future crises, which means it needs to focus on developing a competent workforce. Federal agencies do not necessarily have personnel who are familiar with how state and local governments run. “You need experience in the different cultures,” says Schrader. He agrees with Morton that the grants system needs reform. He would replace grants with “cooperative agreements with states,” says Schrader. The federal government would award a contract, not a grant. That would encourage better performance and more efficient use of federal funds, he says.

The “network federalism” concept that Morton advocates also is mentioned in a recent Brookings Institution study, titled, “A Vision for Homeland Security in the Year 2025.”

Darrell M. West, vice president of governance studies and director of the center for technology innovation at Brookings, says DHS needs to do a better job exchanging information across its own operations, as well as with the states.

DHS’ Transportation Security Administration, for instance, screens individuals arriving or leaving the United States. Currently, there are seven separate information systems to screen air, sea, and land transportation that are not well integrated, says West.

At the state and local level, law enforcement agencies should integrate databases and operations, he says. Each of the 50 states needs better capacity to exchange homeland security information among federal, state and local governments. This helps front-line responders estimate risks.

One of the fundamental questions that people often ask in the homeland security world, West says, is about the relationship between federal and state/local organizations and the private and non-profit sectors. “Who is responsible for various activities and how do we coordinate across sectors?” he asks. “These types of relationships are not well defined in the United States.”

There are still concerns that DHS is “overly siloed and lacks integration, and that these factors made it difficult to identify risks and assess threats,” West says.

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, the country experienced a dramatic example of what happens when federal-state-local interdependencies don’t work well. West cites Terry Ebbert, a former director of homeland security for the City of New Orleans, who pointed out that local officials “write evacuation plans but don’t own buses, planes, or trains.” Yet it is local authorities who have the responsibility to move threatened populations out of harm’s way.

If and when the next major disaster occurs, DHS also could find that state and local resources are not what they used to be.

“An important consideration is the effect the economic downturn has had on state and local governments — the ‘front lines’ of the homeland security enterprise,” says West. The United States has lost 50,000 state and local public health officials to budget cuts since 2007, as well as a number of emergency management personnel, he says. “This weakens the capacity of state and local government to respond to environmental change, biohazards, and other national emergencies.”

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Policy

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