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The REAL ID Act: Time for a re-examination

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Late last Friday afternoon, the Department of Homeland Security announced a set of new deadlines for final implementation of the REAL ID Act, postponing the date when TSA would stop accepting certain non-compliant states’ drivers licenses for aviation screening purposes until January 2018. It had previously been expected that such a deadline would be set for mid-2016 for a number of non-compliant states. This delay to the aviation screening deadline is not unexpected, given the likely disruption to air travel that would have resulted from TSA no long accepting many states’ ID’s as an acceptable form of identification.

Thus, the day of reckoning for REAL ID is postponed for another two years, for a new leadership team at DHS to confront. But it is unclear what will change in the next two years to alter the current status quo, where many states are reluctant to implement elements of REAL ID, the detailed statutory mandates from the 2005 law remain in place, and DHS is still charged with implementing the Act but retains the authority to delay its enforcement of the Act – authority that it has used repeatedly since 2007. While some states are likely to make progress on the REAL ID requirements in the next two years, it is hard to envision that the current impasse over full implementation will end in the next two years, and the next Secretary of DHS will likely be announcing additional delays in late 2017. And meanwhile, more than ten years have already passed since REAL ID was signed into law.

Given this reality, leaders in Congress, the executive branch, and the states have a choice to make. They can allow this dynamic of delay, confrontation, impasse, and further delay to cycle through the system one more time, resulting in gradual (but perhaps outdated) improvements to the security of state-issued identification. Or they can do what I believe is called for now: a serious re-examination of the requirements of the REAL ID Act.

Such a re-examination would include a detailed inquiry into the following questions:

1. What have been the demonstrable security benefits of the REAL ID Act to date, particularly with respect to counterterrorism, but also with respect to other national priorities (e.g. immigration enforcement, fraud prevention)? What elements of the REAL ID Act requirements (of which there are nearly 100) have delivered security benefits, and which have not, from a cost/benefit standpoint? (This would be a good question for a new GAO request by Congress, building off the findings of this 2012 GAO report).

2. Given the development and maturation of other counterterrorism capabilities in the past decade, how relevant and valuable is REAL ID (and secure identification generally) today with respect to domestic counterterrorism? For example, I would assert that it is much more difficult for would-be foreign terrorists (like the 9/11 hijackers) to travel to the United States today and engage in lengthy pre-operational activity than it was before 9/11, given investments in aviation pre-screening, watchlisting, visa security, information-sharing, domestic investigative capabilities, etc. Given how these other layers of security have been enhanced, has the marginal value of REAL ID today from a counterterrorism standpoint diminished or otherwise changed?

3. The terrorism threat facing the United States is significantly different than it was a decade ago, due to factors such as the increase in homegrown terrorism and the rise of ISIS and other new terrorist groups. How have these shifts in the terrorism threat changed the value of the REAL ID Act from a security standpoint? Have we seen changes in terrorist tradecraft with respect to the potential use of drivers’ licenses and other forms of identification?

4. How has technology involved in the past decade with respect to secure identification? Is the REAL ID Act mandating things in law that are now obsolescent from a technology standpoint? For example, what is the significance of digital identification technologies (which are being adopted now in many countries) for REAL ID? What is the significance of recent developments in areas such as biometrics and encryption? How do these technological developments affect the value of current REAL ID requirements?

5. In light of these external factors, how can the dynamics of governance over secure identification be changed so that state and federal actors are working together towards shared objectives, rather than in opposition to each other? Would it be helpful to move toward legislation that is focused on outcomes (similar to many other regulatory models), rather than the checklist approach that is codified in law today? Are there new coordination structures or funding mechanisms that can be used to align incentives?

Given these changes over the past decade, it is time for policy-makers (particularly in Congress) to be asking these questions, rather than allowing the status quo to prevail and REAL ID to continue on its current slow trajectory. A re-examination of REAL ID, and subsequent legislation based on the findings of such a review, would improve our homeland security and help to ensure that state and federal funds are being spent effectively and in a way that addresses today’s threats, instead of in response to yesterday’s threats and outdated requirements.

DHS gets Hill approval for a common appropriations structure

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Buried within the omnibus appropriations bill signed into law in December 2015 is a provision (Section 563 of Division F, the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act) that allows DHS to establish a common appropriations structure, starting with the FY 2017 budget request that will be released in early February. This is something that DHS Secretary Johnson originally requested as part of the FY 2015 DHS budget request, as described in this testimony from March 2014:

As part of this agenda we are tackling our budget structure and process. DHS currently has 76 appropriations and over 120 projects, programs or activities, and there are significant structural inconsistencies across components, making mission based budget planning and budget execution analysis difficult. We are making changes to our budget process to better focus our efforts on a mission and cross-component view.

In the reports that accompanied the FY 2015 and FY 2016 DHS appropriations bills, the appropriations committees were mixed in their support for a transition to such a common appropriations structure in report language. In FY 2015, the House Appropriations Committee (HAC) believed that “DHS would benefit from the implementation of a common appropriation structure across the Department,” but the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) remained silent on this proposal.

In the FY 2016 bills, the HAC included bill language to establish a common appropriations structure, and noted emphatically that “implementing this methodology is a strategic imperative and must move forward with haste.” But the SAC was lukewarm to the proposal in its Committee report for FY 2016. The Committee acknowledged the DHS leadership team’s reasons for considering such a shift: “the goal of following funds from planning through execution is critical to departmental oversight of the components as well as establishing a capability to make tradeoffs in resource allocation and budget development decisions.” But it expressed concern about the potential harm to transparency and congressional oversight from such a shift, and expressed concerns about being unable to compare prior years’ appropriations following such a restructuring. It urged DHS to “tread carefully in this area and work closely with
the Committee.”

The provision included in the final omnibus appropriations bill is a modified version of the House provision, changing the word “shall” to “may” in a few places to soften the mandate for DHS to implement a common appropriation structure for the forthcoming budget request, and requiring that DHS provide a detailed report by April 1, 2016 to the committees on the transition to a common appropriations structure, as a precondition for getting the full authority to implement these changes. These minor changes are not likely to inhibit the ability of DHS to move forward with carrying out this transition, consistent with the intent of the Department’s leadership.

As the new language specifies, and as illustrated in the report “A Common Appropriations Structure for DHS: FY 2016 Crosswalk” (made public on the DHS website late last year), all DHS appropriations will now be allocated in one of four top-level categories: (1) Operations & Support, (2) Procurement, Construction and Improvements, (3) Research and Development, and (4) Federal Assistance. These top-level categories are similar to the structure used by the Department of Defense, where funds are primarily allocated with the categories of (1) Personnel, (2) Operations and Maintenance, (3) Procurement, and (4) Research, Development, Test and Evaluation.

The primary intent of this structure is to facilitate the ability of DHS leadership and Congress to develop greater insight into how funds are being allocated and spent across the Department. Currently, in many of the Department’s components, funds for day-to-day operations (salaries, rent, etc.) are mixed together in budget accounts with long-term capital investments (new ships, screening equipment, etc.), making it difficult to assess whether the right balance is being struck between present-day needs and future requirements. The new structure should also make it easier to identify and compare similar investments being made in different DHS components, and hopefully then find savings and efficiencies, consistent with the stated objectives of the Department’s Unity of Effort Initiative.

A secondary benefit of this reorganization is that it should enhance the ability of authorizing committees to pass authorization bills for DHS on a regular basis. The information provided to Congress in budget requests under a common appropriations structure can be used as a basis for authorizing funds, in a similar way to how the Armed Services Committees use information from DOD budget requests and the Future Years Defense Program to inform their annual authorization bills. The new common appropriations structure would not eliminate the jurisdictional issues that have made it difficult for Congress to pass DHS authorization bills over the past decade, but it would provide a basis for authorizing funds on a cross-cutting basis that is not wholly tied to the fragmented component-level jurisdiction over DHS in the House and the Senate.

Overall, this shift to a common appropriations structure is an encouraging development for the ongoing maturation of DHS, and if executed successfully in the coming year will be a significant accomplishment for Secretary Johnson and his team.

Omnibus legislation: the cyber sausage gets made

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Otto von Bismarck, the master politician who built modern Germany in the late 19th century said that “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” The Omnibus bill that Congress is passing to fund the US government through next September is one huge, ugly sausage. Filled with chunks of budget, it is equally stuffed with a number of new laws. One of those chunks is the Cybersecurity Act of 2015, which includes an updated compromise version of the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA). And a lot of people do not like the taste of this one bit.

CISA has been kicking around Capitol Hill for a number of years. Proponents say it is about sharing cyber threat and Internet information traffic between the government and the private sector. Opponents have labeled it a civil liberties danger with vast amounts of personal information being controlled and shared among government agencies with little oversight. Now, with a dash of oversight protection by Inspectors General and the Government Accountability Office thrown in, CISA was made part of the omnibus appropriations bill. And thus cyber sausage is made.

To add fuel to the cyber debate, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said recently the legislative agenda for next year will include a review of the revisions to the PATRIOT Act from last year – pre-San Bernardino. The cyber industry response was swift and negative with one major lobbying organization calling such actions “reactionary.” An opposing wit compared the cyber industry’s reaction to the National Rifle Association – the Internet does not kill people, people kill people.

So where does this leave us in December 2015? The pressure post-San Bernardino to increase surveillance on the Internet and within social media next year is going to be huge. You can guess how each side will argue the debate based on previous positions. White papers are being drawn up. Metaphorical cyber wagons are being circled. And Presidential year politics will be filled with bombastic arguments on both sides.

Let me suggest, however, that in the middle of this debate the most important thing to keep in mind is what do we need to do to keep our citizens safe — safe from terrorists and safe from massive government intrusion in our lives.

This is a balance and it always will be a balance. If we now err on the side of more collection then it needs to be done with better oversight than we’ve had so far. Frankly, whatever you may think of Edward Snowden, he brought home the ugly truth that massive, legal collection was taking place. Few knew how massive and fewer were providing something beyond rubber stamp oversight.

However, we also need to remember that there is no such thing as 100 percent security. We can collect every cyber haystack looking for terrorist needles and still miss the leads to a pending event.

Still, as heated, as the debate will be in 2016, it is better done in the open with both sides having at it and reaching some form of working agreement that will likely please no one. As Bismarck also said, “politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.” No matter what we decide, nothing will be 100 percent satisfactory to everyone.

Testimony this week by CCHS Program on Extremism expert

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Yesterday the Deputy Director of CCHS’ Program on Extremism Seamus Hughes testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on “The Rise of Radicalization:  Is the U.S. Government Failing to Counter International and Domestic Terrorism?”  Acknowledging that combating violent extremism (CVE) is “a delicate exercise”, Hughes emphasized that “governments and communities have a moral responsibility to try” nevertheless.  Noting that the U.S. government does have a CVE strategy, Hughes observed that “the U.S. effort is disjointed and underfunded.”  Strikingly, he pointed out that “more Americans have died in Syria fighting with ISIS than have been assigned to work on CVE.”

You can read the entire written testimony at this link.

House Intelligence bill seeks to constrain PCLOB on covert action

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A story in the Washington Post today by Ellen Nakashima looks at a provision in the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) mark of the FY 2016 intelligence authorization bill that would inhibit the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) from receiving information that is “related to covert action.” The relevant bill language is as follows:

‘‘(5) LIMITATIONS.—Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize the Board, or any agent thereof, to gain access to information that an executive branch agency deems related to covert action, as such term is defined in section 503(e) of the National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C. 3093(e)).’’.

Nakashima’s story notes that this provision was drafted in response to a recent opinion piece by PCLOB chairman David Medine, arguing for a new “Drone Board” that would provide independent oversight of the use of UAVs for counterterrorism purposes, and suggesting that the PCLOB could take on this responsibility as an additional duty.

I have mixed feelings about HPSCI’s new legislative proposal. On the one hand, I think that the PCLOB should not be focusing on covert action, given that such a focus would be contrary to the intent of Congress when the PCLOB authorities were established in 2004 and modified in 2007. The policy and legislative debate leading to the PCLOB (including in Chapter 12 of the 9/11 Commission Report) was focused almost exclusively on terrorism-related information sharing and collection issues, and not on counterterrorism operations. It would be outside the scope of the PCLOB’s current authorities for the Board to undertake a direct review of a foreign counterterrorism operations program or activity, whether covert or non-covert.

In addition, there is an existing system in place for the review of covert action programs, as described in this 2013 CRS report. If this system is being utilized appropriately by the executive branch and the Congressional intelligence committees, then creating an additional layer of review by the PCLOB is unnecessary in my opinion, particularly given the longstanding statutory language that a covert action finding “may not authorize any action which violates the Constitution of the United States or any statutes of the United States.”

On the other hand, I worry that this legislative proposal as it is currently drafted would create the basis for executive branch agencies to deny information to the PCLOB that the Board should legitimately be entitled to receive. Note the language in the proposal: “information that an executive branch agency deems related to covert action.” The language gives executive branch agencies an unchecked right to define what information is related to covert action, and the inclusion of the words “related to” creates an opportunity for IC lawyers to try to define this exception broadly.

For example, a covert action may rely on a particular intelligence collection or analytic activity that is within the scope of the PCLOB’s remit. This bill language, as currently drafted, could allow the agency responsible for that collection or analysis activity to deny the PCLOB necessary access to information about this activity, on the basis of its “relation” to the covert action. Such an outcome would undermine the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, in a way that is harmful to its clear statutory role as a balancer of privacy and civil liberties concerns within the broader national policy debate on terrorism issues.

The article in the Post notes that this matter will continue to be debated as the bill moves to the floor of the House and is then reconciled with the Senate’s FY 2016 intelligence authorization bill (which has not yet been introduced) later this year. It is also likely that other committees will have a stake in this issue, since the PCLOB’s founding statute is also within the jurisdiction of the Senate and House Judiciary, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and House Oversight committees. I would suggest that an appropriate resolution to this issue would be modifying this provision into “sense of Congress” language that states that the PCLOB should not place a primary, direct focus on covert action programs, but does not impair the Board’s access to information that is within the scope of its current authorities, even if such information is tangentially related to covert action.

A breakthrough on DHS funding: Four initial thoughts

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The House of Representatives has now passed the “clean” Senate-passed version of the DHS appropriations bill for fiscal year 2015. The bill will now go to President Obama for signature, and the looming threat of a partial shutdown of DHS will be averted. Importantly, the bill that is moving forward is a full appropriations bill, and not another continuing resolution, so new priorities for Fiscal Year 2015 will be funded.

A few initial thoughts on this outcome:

First, it shows that trying to use DHS appropriations as a bargaining chip toward desired policy outcomes is a losing strategy, for either party and regardless of the relative merits of the desired policy outcomes. Just as it would be unwise for either political party to threaten Defense appropriations over disagreements on military strategy, it is also unwise to try to use DHS funding as a bargaining chip in a broader debate on immigration policy or any other DHS-related policy issue. The potential risks of a DHS shutdown – in terms of a degradation of the Department’s frontline activities, and the economic and social impact of not paying employees – are too great, especially during a period of a heightened terrorist threat.

Second, I hope that this outcome does not reduce the imperative for further action by this Congress on immigration and border security. There are significant national and economic security issues that legislation can help to address, and I still believe that there is a middle ground where a common-sense deal can be struck that would receive the support of 70-80% of the members of the House and Senate.

Third, I think that the effort by Secretary Johnson and his team to address this issue, and make the case for funding DHS, has perhaps been the most effective public relations campaign in the twelve years of the Department’s existence. The Secretary has been ruthlessly on message about this issue, and has factually made the case about the potential impact of a shutdown on the Department’s operations and on DHS’s support for state and local responders. He has managed to do this without being adversarial, which likely paid dividends in terms of garnering Congressional support for the pending outcome.

Fourth, I hope that the resolution of this issue clears the path for the Senate to finally confirm Russell Deyo to be the Under Secretary for Management at DHS. I wrote in mid-February about the status of his nomination, which has now been stalled on the Senate floor for nearly four months, perhaps due in part to gridlock related to this broader funding fight. Deyo has broad bipartisan support, and with DHS appropriations now resolved, the Senate should try to approve his nomination this week.

The DHS funding endgame: How can Congress get to yes?

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The U.S. Congress remains gridlocked in its efforts to fund the Department of Homeland Security for the remainder of fiscal year 2015, with the Department’s funding scheduled to lapse after this Friday, Feb. 27th. In the latest development in this saga, the Senate failed again today to achieve the 60-vote threshold for a motion to proceed to the House-passed bill. News reports today in the New York Times and Politico provide in-depth updates on the current state of play.

Recent statements by members of Congress from both parties indicates that very few members of Congress see a partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security as being a desirable outcome. A shutdown will not halt the President’s recent immigration orders; instead it will perversely punish the very people who are on the front lines of protecting our nation’s borders including those serving at CBP, ICE and in the Coast Guard. And it would come at a time when the nation faces a significant terrorist threat to the homeland, most recently exemplified by al Shabaab’s stated threat this weekend against shopping malls.

But both parties are so dug into their respective positions on the immigration policy provisions that it is extremely unlikely that one side will simply cave in and accede to the other’s position. Therefore it is time for Congress to consider alternate solutions to try to resolve this impasse. One option currently being weighed by Sen. McConnell is including a narrower set of policy riders that he hopes may win over a handful of Senate Democrats.

Another option is to decouple DHS appropriations from the immigration debate, by passing a “clean” DHS appropriations bill (not a CR) in exchange for a unanimous consent (UC) agreement for a clean Senate process to advance immigration and border security legislation in the 114th Congress. All of this could be accomplished quickly via Senate passage of the House DHS Appropriations bill (as modified, with immigration policy riders removed) concurrent with a UC agreement in the Senate that includes the following provisions:

  • The Senate Majority Leader would be provided with the authority in the 114th Congress to bring a motion to proceed to broad-based immigration and border security legislation (as defined by the Senate Parliamentarian) to the floor (either from the House or the Senate Judiciary Committee) at a simple majority vote threshold, instead of at 60 votes per normal procedures
  • The Senate could proceed immediately to consideration of the bill after the passage of a motion to proceed, without needing the cloture motion to “ripen”;
  • Each side would be guaranteed at least 15 amendments (as determined by the Majority Leader and Minority Leader) at a simple majority vote threshold, and not subject to filibuster;
  • Final passage of the bill would be subject to a simple majority vote threshold, and not subject to filibuster;
  • Other dilatory tactics currently allowed under Senate rules (e.g. the clerk reading the bill) would not be allowed under the terms of the agreement.

Such an agreement would also need to be conditional on the House actually passing the clean Senate-passed bill without further changes, so that it could then be signed by the President.

This unanimous consent agreement would provide a much clearer procedural path for the House and the Senate to advance immigration and border security legislation in the 114th Congress than currently exists, giving them a direct legislative pathway to address this set of issues. At the same time, the agreement would preserve the President’s ability to veto any legislation, which hopefully would provide the basis for a constructive negotiation between the two parties on these issues and lead to immigration and border security legislation that has bipartisan support.

This is optimistic on my part, to be sure. But the consequences of allowing DHS funding to lapse are so serious that it is time to consider options such as this one, or any other face-saving outcomes that allow both sides to “get to yes” on funding the Department.

DHS Management: Still high-risk, still leaderless

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The Government Accountability Office released its biennial High-Risk List report yesterday, and the issue of “Strengthening Department of Homeland Security Management Functions” carried over on the High-Risk List from the 2013 report, although GAO found that the Department had made progress in the last two years. The 2013 report indicated that DHS had “fully” or “mostly” addressed only 8 out of 31 key actions or outcomes prescribed by the GAO. In this new report, two years later, DHS has fully or mostly addressed 14 out of 30 actions or outcomes. But overall, GAO found that “DHS continues to face significant management challenges that hinder the department’s ability to meet its missions.”

Unfortunately, the Department’s management challenges are exacerbated by three months of Senate inaction on the President’s nominee to be Under Secretary for Management at DHS, Russell Deyo. Deyo was announced by the White House as a nominee for the position in August 2014. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on Deyo’s nomination on September 17, 2014, and he was favorably reported to the floor by a voice vote of the Committee on November 12th, 2014. He was not confirmed on the floor prior to the conclusion of the 113th Congress, and was renominated in January and quickly re-reported to the floor by the Committee on January 22, 2015.

Thus, it has now been three months since he was first reported to the floor, but for some reason his nomination remains in limbo. By all accounts, Deyo has an impressive record and strong bipartisan support, and is deserving of confirmation. He has a strong private sector background, including serving as General Counsel of Johnson & Johnson from 2004 to 2012. As former Senator Tom Coburn noted in his opening statement at Deyo’s confirmation hearing:

For Mr. Deyo, bringing strong and effective leadership to the Under Secretary for Management position will be key to the success of Secretary Johnson’s management and “Unity of Effort” initiative.

Having reviewed your biography, I am impressed by the professional, private sector experience that you would bring to the Undersecretary position.

And as former DHS Secretary Chertoff noted, when he introduced him at the confirmation hearing:

I could not give a stronger endorsement to Mr. Deyo for this position. I think if he’s confirmed, he will serve effectively and honorably.

In spite of these endorsements, it remains unclear when Deyo will finally be confirmed, even though (based on his record) he presumably could be confirmed by a voice vote or a unanimous consent agreement. Perhaps the current delay is a byproduct of the broader conflict in Congress right now over DHS appropriations. But regardless of the status of this situation, hopefully the Senate leadership will move forward soon to confirm Deyo, so that he can begin serving, tackle the critical management challenges facing the Department that the GAO has identified, and work to get DHS management dropped from the high-risk list by the time of the next report, in early 2017.

Election 2014: the homeland security implications (Part 1)

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The Senate and House election results last night will have significant consequences for a variety of policy issues, including homeland security policy issues. This post assesses the direct impact of the elections on the leadership and governance of homeland security issues in Congress; a later post will examine the broader impact on the legislative agenda.

In the Senate, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is poised to become the next chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC), in light of Sen. Tom Coburn’s retirement from the Senate at the end of this year. Sen. Tom Carper is likely to move from chairman to ranking member of the Committee, and the Democrats will need to fill several open seats on the Committee, in light of the losses by Sen. Mark Pryor and Sen. Mark Begich, and the retirement of Sen. Carl Levin.

HSGAC would lose a fourth Democratic member if Sen. Mary Landrieu is not re-elected in the runoff election now scheduled for December 6th in Louisiana. She has also served for the last four years as the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Homeland Security of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, playing a very significant role in setting the Department of Homeland Security’s funding priorities. Even if she is re-elected, it is possible that she would move to a ranking position on another subcommittee, given Sen. Tom Harkin’s retirement. In either scenario, someone like Sen. Jon Tester or Sen. Chris Coons would likely become the new ranking member of the subcommittee. Sen. Dan Coats seems likely to move from ranking member to chairman of the Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee, given that no Republican members ahead of him in seniority are departing the Senate.

On the House side, there will be more stability, with Rep. Michael McCaul and Rep. Bennie Thompson likely to continue on as Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Homeland Security. There could be some turnover in the leadership of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, due to domino effects created by the retirement of senior appropriators on both the Republican and Democratic sides.

One near-term question is whether the shift in control of Senate will prompt the new Republican Senate leadership to reform and consolidate jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security, the one remaining unimplemented recommendation of the 2004 9/11 Commission report. A group convened by the Aspen Institute and the Annenberg Public Policy Center has brought renewed attention to this issue within the last year, in a report and a full-page ad placed in the Wall Street Journal that had several dozen signatories.

A transition to a new Congress, particularly when there is a switch in control of the House or Senate, offers a narrow window of opportunity to address jurisdictional issues such as this one. Incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is familiar with this issue as the co-author of the original 2004 working group proposal to reform jurisdiction that was later watered down on the floor of the Senate. If the senior Republican national security leaders who were signatories on this letter push Sen. McConnell and the Senate Republican leadership team to focus on this issue, and if other Senators who will be affected, such as Sen. John Thune (slated to lead the Commerce Committee) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (slated to lead the Judiciary Committee), can be persuaded to accept some reform, then it is possible that some progress could be made. But it is not yet clear whether this issue will be a priority for the incoming leadership team.

State counterterror messaging program included in “Wastebook”

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Senator Tom Coburn released his annual “Wastebook” last night, a report that is catnip for reporters and which identifies 100 federal government projects and activities as wasteful, building in many cases off the prior work of Inspectors General, the GAO, and investigative reporters.

This report plays a valuable role in highlighting legitimately wasteful activity by a variety of federal agencies. For example, I think that many of the DHS-related examples cited in the report (e.g. overuse of paid leave, vehicle fleet management, a gym contract for ICE’s HQ, CBP housing in Ajo, Arizona) are fair examples of wasteful or questionable spending. But I was struck by one item that I strongly believe does not deserve to be included in this report: the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), highlighted on page 45 of the report.

Sen. Coburn’s primary criticisms of the CSCC is that their efforts “lack hard metrics” and that it is “ineffective”. Sen. Coburn also extensively cites a recent Time Magazine piece by Rita Katz that was critical of the program. His concluding paragraph:

The extremist message that resonates with a would-be ISIS jihadist is
born of the want and disaffection that comes from the lack of better opportunities. What the State Department fails to realize with its taxpayer-funded social media experiment is that efforts like this will always fail because they attempt to address the war of ideas at its downstream effect as opposed to its root cause. Instead of sending one more State Department tweet, we should reinvest these funds in activities that improve basic education and develop the free market in places that remain disconnected from the global economy. We can yield better results for our scarce taxpayer dollars than extreme indignation.

It is undoubtedly true that it is difficult to measure the outcome of such a program – Amb. Alberto Fernandez, who leads CSCC, acknowledged this point at an event that HSPI recently held. But I think it is unfair to call it ineffective, given that it still is a relatively new program, and one that is still experimenting with different tactics in support of its overall objectives. I worry that critiques such as Sen. Coburn’s will discourage such experimentation and risk-taking in federal agencies – something that needs to be encouraged and rewarded, rather than dismissed.

I look at CSCC as a relatively small bet – $3 million/year – amid the tens of billions of dollars spent each year overall by the federal government on counterterrorism programs. CSCC’s former director, Amb. Richard LeBaron made similar points in very undiplomatic language in a recent Politico piece:

Defenders of the program, not least CSCC’s first director, Richard LeBaron, sound more than a little defensive when the question comes up. “So you do nothing? So you don’t try? You don’t experiment? You don’t spend a small amount of money?” said LeBaron, who is now retired from the State Department. “This organization probably costs less than one drone every year. Probably considerably less than one Goddamn drone. And to tell me that that is a waste of money is just utter bullshit. That’s a good use of money. That’s an ideal use of money — experiment and learn, so that you don’t have to use the drones.”

Ultimately, Sen. Coburn’s objections to this program are disagreements on policy and on messaging tactics; there is nothing in the report to support the idea that the $3 million for CSCC’s budget is wasteful spending. Hopefully the program’s inclusion in the Wastebook will not be used as the basis for others to support cutting funding for the program or curtailing its forward-leaning and risk-taking efforts.