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New Jersey publicly releases its annual terrorism threat assessment

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Yesterday the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP) publicly released a report entitled “Terrorism Threat Assessment 2016”, a detailed assessment of the current terrorism threat in the state of New Jersey. The report is a solid analysis of the different dimensions of the terrorist threat to the state; it concludes that homegrown violent extremists pose the greatest threat to the state in 2016, and also assesses that there is a “moderate” terrorism threat from other groups (ISIS, AQAP, white supremacists, militia groups, and sovereign citizens).

What is especially notable about the report is the fact that the state is releasing it publicly on its website, a contrast to the previous practice of marking such reports “For Official Use Only” (FOUO) and restricting their distribution narrowly to law enforcement officers, other public safety officials, executives at critical infrastructure companies, etc. This decision seems to reflect a deliberate recognition of the value in directly informing the American public about the terrorist threat, and appropriately enlisting them in efforts to detect and prevent terrorism, instead of treating them as passive bystanders. As the director of the NJOHSP notes in the foreword to the report, “Security is a collective responsibility and we are all in this fight together.”

The decision to release this report publicly warrants praise, and is a practice that the federal government and other states should emulate. For example, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation jointly release dozens of Unclassified/FOUO intelligence reports each year, the contents of which are rarely sensitive; in many instances, their findings are copied and pasted nearly verbatim from official statements about terror-related indictments. Given that these reports are already widely disseminated to state and local law enforcement and other stakeholders, there is little justification for not making them public at the outset, rather than allowing them to eventually leak to the news media, as they often do. The revised National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), which I wrote about last month, may also provide a basis for such broader dissemination of threat information. Many state fusion centers also produce similar reports to New Jersey’s assessment, which could be publicly released.

A shift toward issuing such analyses publicly could improve the American public’s understanding about the terrorism threat, leading to several tangible benefits. As noted earlier, well-informed citizens are more likely to play a role in detecting and reporting suspicious activity and potentially then preventing the next attack. Well-informed citizens are also less likely to make inappropriate reports about activity that should not be deemed suspicious, which wastes law enforcement agencies’ time with false leads. Finally, an American public that develops a sober, fact-based understanding of terrorism threats from professional non-partisan analysts (instead of from other filtered sources: cable news, social media, Hollywood, politicians, etc.) is more likely to react in a measured and resilient way to terrorist attacks and periods of elevated threat.

By no means is such public dissemination of threat information a panacea: but if such efforts lead to an improved public understanding of the terrorism threat even among a small percentage of the U.S. population, these efforts will be more than worthwhile.

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 updates its terrorism advisory system

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Earlier today, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced changes to the National Terrorism Advisory System, adding a new category of warning, the NTAS Bulletin, to complement NTAS Alerts, and to be used as follows:

NTAS Bulletins will provide information describing broader or more general trends and current developments regarding threats of terrorism. They will share important terrorism-related information with the American public and various partners and stakeholders, including in those situations where additional precautions may be warranted, but where the circumstances do not warrant the issuance of an “elevated” or “imminent” Alert.

DHS also issued its first NTAS bulletin in conjunction with the Secretary’s statement, a one-pager on the global threat environment that highlights the Department’s concerns with “self-radicalized actor(s) who could strike with little or notice.”

Overall, this introduction of NTAS Bulletins is an improvement to the system, and is particularly warranted given the fact that DHS and the FBI already produced unclassified bulletins for law enforcement and first responders – their Joint Intelligence Bulletins (see this example) – which are widely disseminated and almost always find their ways to the news media a few days after they are issued. It makes a lot of sense to repurpose many of these JIBs into NTAS bulletins, in instances where the vigilance of the general public may help to prevent or disrupt a particular threat.

However, these changes to the NTAS do not address my long-standing concerns about the underuse of NTAS, which I outlined in this blog post last year, noting that there were a number of circumstances in the past 3-4 years where the issuance of an NTAS alert was warranted in my opinion, based on the system’s own standard of a credible threat (for an elevated alert) or a specific and credible threat (for an imminent alert). For example, I still maintain that DHS should have issued an NTAS alert after the Boston Marathon bombings during the four days when the attackers (the Tsarnaev brothers) had not yet been identified and were still at large.

Given the current pace of ISIS-related terror plots, there will likely be similar circumstances in the coming months and years where DHS should issue NTAS Alerts, not to stoke fear but to ensure that the American people have an informed understanding of current threats. Hopefully today’s changes to NTAS will also lead the Department’s leadership to be more forward-leaning in utilizing the system.

But in the meantime, the 25,000+ followers of the @NTASAlerts twitter account are still waiting for that first tweet.

A difficult dichotomy for American policing

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The so-called “militarization of police” became a topic of intense political conversation after the officer-involved shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old man in Ferguson, MO in August 2014, followed by days of civil unrest. American police departments have been criticized for stockpiling military-grade weapons and gear, which are often used for routine raids, such as serving search warrants, or deployed against protestors, as was done in Ferguson. Critics question whether such equipment is needed by police.

In May, President Obama announced changes to a key federal program transferring such equipment from the Department of Defense to local police, the 1033 Program. The federal government will no longer provide certain types of “heavy military” equipment, including large caliber weapons and ammunition, and law enforcement agencies must submit to stringent federal oversight and restrictions for other equipment, such as riot gear and wheeled armor and tactical vehicles.

But the San Bernardino mass shooting, like the Paris terror attacks, has added another perspective to the debate over “militarization” and what equipment and tactics local police should have access to.

Recent attacks have demonstrated a shift in terrorist tactics where they are no longer interested in negotiating, are heavily armed, and attack ‘soft’ targets with the intent of killing as many people as possible. Speaking on Face the Nation, New York City police commissioner, William J. Bratton, called the Paris attacks a “game changer” for law enforcement. Former Chicago superintendent, Garry McCarthy, acknowledged that terrorists are changing tactics and told his officers, “We’re going to be in a combat situation if these things happen and we have to adjust our strategies in that way.”

U.S. police officials are not alone in advising more aggressive police tactics. Police officials in Europe are demanding heavier weapons and protective gear for counter-terrorism response. In Britain, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, Patricia Gallan, said officers are being trained to “go forward” to confront terrorists.

Indeed, law enforcement has been shifting tactics since the attacks in Mumbai, India. Ordinary patrol police are increasingly expected to confront active shooters without waiting for more heavily armed SWAT teams. Armed with little more than handguns, these officers face heightened danger as evidenced by the death of University of Colorado police officer Garrett Swasey who was killed intervening in the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs.

Ferguson and San Bernardino present a conundrum for law enforcement. One one hand, police need military-grade equipment and new tactics to counter new terrorist tactics. San Bernardino county law enforcement has been the beneficiary of $5.8 million in 1033 Program surplus equipment since 2006; some of which was likely used in the Inland Regional Center response. Equipment acquired through the 1033 Program was on hand during the Boston Marathon bombing.

Ultimately, though, police officers must be peacekeepers, not warfighters. The greatest asset in the fight against terrorism is positive police-community relations – which requires building public trust. Now, more than ever, community policing is essential. Police must cultivate robust and ongoing relationships, especially in immigrant and Muslim communities.

Scott Somers, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at the GW Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and Professor of Emergency Management at Arizona State University.

DHS S&T strategy highlights the Homeland Security Industrial Base

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The Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) at the Department of Homeland Security released a new five-year strategic plan this week, a detailed document that succinctly articulates and aligns the Directorate’s priority areas of research and engagement for the next five years. The report highlights the five visionary goals that S&T announced last fall, and it explains how S&T plans to address management and workforce issues, a very important priority given S&T’s record of low employee morale for the last several years.

One notable aspect of the strategy is the focus on the Homeland Security Industrial Base, or HSIB for short; a term that had not previously been used widely within DHS until S&T Under Secretary Reggie Brothers started using it last year, as a variant of the well-known concept of a Defense Industrial Base. The report articulates the concept of a HSIB as follows:

Unlike many other industries with well-defined sets of products, technologies, and customers, the HSIB is a highly fragmented federation of product and service providers serving a broad constituency. Customers and their needs vary widely, from ships for the U.S. Coast Guard to protective gear for first responders to cyber defense tools for power plants. This degree of fragmentation means that many companies with leading-edge technologies are often small and more challenging to locate and engage. Simultaneously, federal, state, and local agencies are spending less on R&D for next-generation technologies. Therefore, it is critical that S&T collaborate with the HSIB to capitalize on industry investments in R&D and encourage the development of force multiplying solutions that defend, defeat, and mitigate threats to the nation.

In order to energize the HSIB, S&T will revamp existing programs so industry can more easily partner with S&T. We will also develop new approaches to engage non-traditional companies. The following initiatives highlight specific activities that will help us achieve this objective.

This focus on the Homeland Security Industrial Base as part of S&T’s strategy will hopefully catalyze efforts to address the noted fragmentation of homeland security markets and technologies. This fragmentation has led many companies in the past decade to settle for opportunistic investments in the homeland security market, rather than taking a long-term, strategic approach with respect to investments in homeland security research and development, as they often do in other markets and domains.

If S&T’s efforts with respect to the HSIB can help to encourage standard-setting, reduce duplication, and decrease market fragmentation, the Department will likely find itself dealing with a stronger, more engaged set of industry partners in the coming years, who can be a force multiplier for S&T’s own investments in its portfolio of research challenges.

Security and the Illusion of Control

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Over the past several days, we have seen a series of events that should remind us all that no matter what we poor humans may do to the contrary, there is no such thing as 100 percent security. And to think we have total control over any situation is but an illusion.

The United States and other nations around the world have spent billions of dollars assuring airliner security. We have collectively purchased metal detectors, security guards with weapons, background checks capabilities and massive crosschecking multinational computer lists. We have hardened cockpit doors and have established ample personnel screening for pilots. Yet, one man from Germany got around the system and in a suicidal rage killed 150 people by flying into a mountain snuffing out his pain and their lives in moments.

News reporters and experts tell us it is different in the United States. We have more systems in place for control over pilots. More screenings and sharing of information about pilot mental health. I believe them. We probably do. I hope we do.

Then, I read our White House computer system has been hacked by the Russians. Unclassified, but sensitive, so were these systems described. Still, despite security measures, they gained access to – among other things — the advance copy of the President’s daily schedule. And, these same hackers who were also behind the State Department hack of a few months back. We know who they are and we are tracking them down, we are told.

And, yesterday, in the quiet Maryland suburbs of DC, a power substation went down. No malice involved. A mechanical failure caused an explosion that tripped circuits. The “tripping” proceeded to take out power in a fair portion of the nation’s capital with lightening speed – including the White House, the FBI, the Capitol, the subway system and a large number of other government buildings in downtown DC. We were even treated to the sight of our First Lady being hustled away from a local blacked out theater to the safety of the White House – where back up generators no doubt had kicked in.

I offer all these events not as a proof of incompetence or malfeasance – just simple fact. There are many good people trying to protect us from the bad guys every day. But there are many bad guys trying to harm us as well. And, sometimes, things happen like power grids going down.

What I do suggest, however, is we move beyond the illusion of total control in our security efforts. We can and need to manage risk. We can and need to mitigate risk. But we can never get rid of risk – however much we plan, spend or hope.

ICE seeks a License Plate Reader service: Take Two

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The Washington Post has a story today highlighting the fact that Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) has issued a new solicitation entitled “Access to License Plate Reader Commercial Data Service”, a second attempt by ICE to procure such a service after a previous solicitation was withdrawn last year following a round of media scrutiny. As the Post story notes, the DHS Privacy Office also recently completed a review of ICE’s “Acquisition and Use of License Plate Reader Data from a Commercial Service”; the completion of this review likely provided the basis for ICE to move forward with this solicitation.

The Privacy Office’s review of this matter is thorough in its analysis of the relevant issues, and makes it clear that ICE would not be developing its own LPR database, but instead would simply be establishing a query capability that can be used against known subjects of investigations or enforcement actions, consistent with ICE’s well-established law enforcement authorities. This is a standard tool now for U.S. law enforcement at all levels of government, an issue that may be worthy of a broader national policy debate, building on the analysis within this 2014 report from RAND. But given that the adoption of these capabilities is already the prevailing reality today, there is no justifiable reason why one of the largest federal law enforcement agencies in the country should not also have uniform access to such a capability.

Furthermore, the DHS Privacy Office report also notes the variety of safeguards that will be put in place with ICE’s access to such a service, including required training of ICE officers, specified purpose policies, and audit capabilities to detect and deter misuse. These safeguards should help to provide the general public that such a capability will not be misused, and senior leaders at DHS and ICE will need to be watchful to make sure that it is not.

Despite the concerns expressed by a couple of the critics in the Washington Post piece, it is likely that ICE’s procurement of this service will now move forward. The real lesson from this story and the earlier firestorm over this issue in 2014, is that DHS and its components need to be more proactive in socializing such new projects and proposals with key stakeholders (including Congress) and the media early on in the planning process. Too often in DHS’s history, new projects make their first public appearance in a solicitation on FedBizOpps or as a passing reference in a job posting on USAJobs. After such projects are publicly uncovered, the critics often drive the media narrative, DHS reacts slowly, and those who would be generally inclined to support such projects are provided with scant information on which to base such arguments. This ICE/LPR issue will hopefully serve as a useful case study about how the Department can better vet and socialize similar projects in the future.

2014 Fusion Center assessment released: Three key takeaways

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The Department of Homeland Security quietly released its annual report on the National Network of Fusion Centers several days ago on the Department’s website, available at this link. This is the fourth consecutive year that the Department has produced and issued such a report, measuring the relative maturity of the 78 state and local fusion centers with respect to a defined set of Critical Operational Capabilities and Enabling Capabilities. (Previous years’ reports are available at this link).

The latest report provides a rich, updated overview of the current state of the national network of fusion centers. I won’t try to summarize the full report, but instead would note my three key takeaways:

1. Fusion center costs. The total operational cost of the national network of fusion centers was calculated at $328.3 million for 2014, of which $184.8 million (56.3%) was funded by state and local dollars. A smaller amount – $143.7 million (43.2%) – of funding for fusion centers came from federal coffers, either directly in terms of staff deployed at fusion centers, or indirectly through homeland security grants.

This reality of balanced cost-sharing between federal, state and local levels is a strong counterpoint to the occasional budget-related critiques of the fusion centers. It’s also worth noting that this annual federal investment in state and local fusion centers is miniscule in comparison with other federal homeland security and counterterrorism activities, adding up to around 0.24% of the annual DHS budget or 0.27% of the annual National Intelligence Program budget – a proportionally small investment in enhancing the capabilities and awareness of state and local entities across the country in support of these critical national security missions.

2. Collaborative analytic products. The new report notes that the network of fusion centers issued 272 collaborative analytic reports in 2014, i.e. where two or more fusion centers jointly develop and publish a report on a given topic. This number is a significant increase from the 115 collaborative reports issued in 2013. Without knowing more about the content of these reports, it’s difficult to definitively assess the meaning of this increase, but this is the kind of trend that is likely to lead to analytic reporting that is increasingly valuable to federal agencies.

For example, If Fusion Center A works together with Fusion Centers B and C on a report on, say, human trafficking issues, and they all identify common trends in terms of traffickers’ activities that may have otherwise appeared incidental to an investigation, that information likely has analytic and investigative value nation-wide with respect to addressing the issue, including to federal law enforcement agencies. Such collaboration is a positive indicator for fusion centers’ continued maturation.

3. The limits of performance assessment. The report notes that the 78 fusion centers averaged a score of 96.3 out of 100 on the assessment of their capability, an average increase of four points from the 2013 assessment, and a significant increase from an average score of 76.8 in 2011. 29 of the 78 fusion centers had a perfect score of 100 in 2014.

This increase in fusion center capabilities is a reflection of dedicated, serious effort in the past five years by the fusion centers to mature their capabilities, and thus to ensure that they are providing value to their state and local stakeholders and their federal partners. As a result, fusion centers today are increasingly efficient in their business processes and are very judicious with respect to privacy and civil liberties-related concerns – it’s not an accident that there have not been any privacy and civil liberties-related scandals at fusion centers in the last 3-4 years, as there were on several occasions in the mid to late 2000’s.

However, it is important to recognize the limits of this assessment process, as the Government Accountability Office noted in a report released in November 2014:

The overall assessment scores represent fusion centers’ progress in establishing designated baseline capabilities—such as implementing specified policies and procedures—but the scores may not reflect improvements in overall performance or homeland security contributions. That is, the assessment questions are intended to capture the extent to which each fusion center—regardless of size or staffing level—has met baseline capabilities to receive, analyze, gather, and disseminate information. However, the actual output of products and services can vary considerably by center based on risk environment, resource levels, or other factors. For example, 11 individual attributes constitute the “analyze” capability, and represent a broad range of activities, such as having developed an analytical production plan, the ability to access subject matter experts, and being able to contribute to local and national threat assessments. A center may report the successful completion of such activities and improve its overall assessment scores, but the scores do not reflect if the center effectively administered these activities or if they resulted in any considerable impact.

Given that the fusion center assessment process has reached its Lake Wobegon phase, with all of the centers now above average, it is imperative that the next assessment be revamped, and focused not only on capability-building but also assessing these issues of performance and effectiveness, in a way that is cognizant and respectful of state and local governance of fusion centers.

………

There are many additional details in the full report that are worth examining – you can read the full report here.

Do we need DHS? Yes.

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The CATO Institute released a short opinion piece today by one of its senior fellows, Michael Tanner, entitled “Do we need the DHS?” This story follows on a long legacy of similar opinion pieces in the news media, such as this piece from 2013. The new piece from CATO raises the question, following the recent resolution of the DHS funding debate, as to whether the Department of Homeland Security is needed. The piece lists off a number of the Department’s weaknesses and challenges, such as diffuse Congressional oversight, challenges with grants management, and morale issues – all of which are legitimate issues. But the piece then makes a gargantuan logical jump to assert that the Department of Homeland Security should be broken up in light of these problems and challenges. This proposal, if implemented, would be disastrous in terms of DHS’s performance of its key missions and would be contrary to the principles of effective government management.

I don’t think that there is a strong likelihood of proposals such as this being seriously considered by Congress, but I still think that it is important to push back against arguments such as this, and make the case for the ongoing value and necessity of the Department of Homeland Security. There is a long list of arguments that I could make here, but I’ll summarize my case with these four:

First, and most importantly, the Department in many respects has become much more than the sum of its parts in the last decade, with respect to its operational mission performance. CBP, ICE, USCIS and the Coast Guard all work together to carry out the Department’s border security and immigration missions. CBP, TSA and ICE all work together to prevent terrorist and other illicit travel (e.g. human trafficking) to the United States. FEMA and the Coast Guard have become closer since DHS was created in terms of their disaster response roles, and other operational components have been called on to support major disaster response efforts. ICE, the Secret Service, and NPPD all have significant cybersecurity responsibilities, and are working more closely together in support of their respective cyber activities. And all of the operational entities of DHS have some role (although admittedly not the lead federal role) in counterterrorism, and DHS information has played a critical role in disrupting several of the higher-profile terrorist plots targeting the United States over the past 7-8 years.

Second, the Department has played the critical federal role since its inception in integrating state and local law enforcement and first responders into supporting its missions. This is true not only with respect to FEMA and disaster response, but equally importantly with respect to counterterrorism, and increasingly in the last few years with respect to cybersecurity. (Of note on this issue, contrary to the CATO piece, fusion centers are not “operated by the DHS” – they are entities owned and operated by state and local governments, each with a small number of federal employees detailed by DHS and DOJ.)

Third, stories such as this promote a distorted perspective on the growth of DHS over the past thirteen years. The story says that “spending has skyrocketed, tripling from $18 billion per year in 2002 to more than $54 billion last year.” This statistic likely refers to the OMB’s government-wide crosscut of homeland security spending, but that annual analysis is not solely about DHS; OMB’s numbers include items such as domestic force protection at the Department of Defense and biosecurity programs at HHS. In reality, the DHS budget has grown since its inception from $36 billion in FY 2002 to $55 billion in FY 2011 – but this growth rate is far from a “tripling” of the budget. (Budget numbers taken from DHS’s response to a Question for the Record by Sen. Ron Johnson from a 2011 Senate hearing. See numbered pages 1029-1031 of this very large PDF.)

It’s also worth noting that most of this growth was not due to sprawling bureaucracy but due to increases to frontline operational capacity, in terms of personnel (notably the doubling of the size of the Border Patrol), technology and infrastructure. The reality is that the parts of DHS that I would consider to be “headquarters” – the Office of the Secretary and Executive Management (OSEM), the Office of the Undersecretary of Management, the Offices of Operations Coordination and Intelligence Analysis, and the Science and Technology Directorate – account for only 1.7% of the DHS workforce, a large share of whom are carrying out government-wide Congressional mandates in areas such as IT management and financial oversight.

Fourth, anyone who proposes dismantling DHS should have the burden of proposing what they would do with its constituent parts, and how such an initiative would improve the performance of the Department’s current missions. The five entities that have responsibility for immigration, border security and travel security (CBP, ICE, USCIS, Coast Guard, TSA), where the rationale for operational integration is strongest, account for 195,000 of the Department’s 225,000 employees – around 87%. Is the author proposing that these five entities should not be within the same Cabinet department? If he is, he’s making a proposal that will have a serious negative impact on the government’s performance of these missions. If he is not, then he’s not really proposing to break up DHS, but instead proposing a more moderate tinkering, perhaps by returning the Secret Service to the Treasury or making FEMA an independent agency again. I wouldn’t recommend either of these; in particular, I think FEMA is now critically interlinked with many other parts of DHS. The reality is that there is no realistic option for a major overhaul of DHS that does not have significant operational impacts.

My bottom line: is the Department of Homeland Security today everything that Congress envisioned it to be when it created it in 2002? No, not yet. (And this is in part due to external factors beyond the Department’s control, such as (a) the decisions in 2002-2003 to hobble its intelligence-related mandate from the start by creating TTIC and the Terrorist Screening Center outside of DHS (b) and the ongoing dysfunctional structure of Congressional oversight). But has it made substantial progress toward realizing this vision? Yes. Would additional major organizational changes improve the performance of DHS’s current missions? No, and they would more likely backfire, and introduce substantial new operational and management-related risks.

For all of these reasons, and others, we still need DHS. And we’re better served as a nation by an ongoing policy discussion focused on how it can be improved and made more efficient, rather than a debate about breaking it up.

Considering a CR: The worst option to fund DHS

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A story in Politico today reports on the prospects of Congress passing a continuing resolution (“CR”) to fund the Department of Homeland Security, as a means to resolve the current impasse over passing DHS appropriations legislation for Fiscal Year 2015. But the story highlights the downsides of passing a CR:

But in reality, a continuing resolution is just about the worst way that Congress could solve the funding problem, short of actually shutting the department down.

The story also notes that Secretary Johnson has been making these arguments to Congress:

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has been warning Capitol Hill of the downsides of a continuing resolution, telling lawmakers that short-term funding won’t solve his problems. A continuing resolution wouldn’t include any of the money the department is supposed to get for new initiatives — it just keeps last year’s funding on autopilot.

I agree with these sentiments completely, and would argue that a vote for a CR (either short-term or long-term) is a vote for fiscal irresponsibility. As Sec. Johnson has noted, a CR fails to fund new priorities for DHS – which in many cases are the highest priority spending items for the Department. It continues to fund low-priority items that may otherwise have been cut or eliminated in a full-year appropriations bill. And it impairs the ability of Departmental managers to carry out their responsibilities in a way that is timely or cost effective. If any business had to operate under such a budget regimen, it would go bankrupt within weeks or months.

I am still holding out hope that Congress will pass a clean full-year appropriations bill for DHS when it returns next week, especially in light of yesterday’s court ruling. The Department of Homeland Security is too important to leave unfunded, and even a furlough of 15% of its staff will have a substantial impact on its operational effectiveness if the Department remains unfunded for more than a few days. But if Congress fails to reach a funding agreement and settles for a short-term or long-term CR, such legislation should not be seen as an adequate substitute to a full-year appropriations bill.