The homeland security “enterprise,” as the federal government refers to it, has become so much a part of the daily lives of Americans that it’s sometimes difficult to remember life without a Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Created out of 22 existing federal agencies in November 2002 – two years before the 9/11 Commission completed a list of recommendations for what the new department ought to be doing – DHS, created in response to a national crisis, was born playing defense, and, as an agency whose work is directly accessible to American citizens, its 220,000 employees are quick to feel the sting of public reproach.
In anticipation of its 10-year anniversary, DHS’ own progress report, based on the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, was released during the summer of 2011. (http://www.dhs.gov/files/publications/implementing-9-11-commission-recommendations.shtm). Now the third-largest agency in the U.S. government, DHS has spent $636 billion since its inception, and its list of achievements is difficult to encapsulate. A cursory sampling of these measures includes:
- Transportation Security. After a rocky beginning, the new agency created within the department – the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) – has made substantial progress, especially in the area of aviation screening. A workforce of more than 58,000 spends each day in the public eye, screening 100 percent of passengers, luggage, and cargo to assure the security not only of the aviation industry, but also of the nation’s highways, railroads, buses, mass transit systems, pipelines, and ports. In addition, various programs have been designed to support state and local efforts to boost the security of transportation systems.
The agency responsible for the security of maritime transportation and cargo – the U.S. Coast Guard – conducts several programs designed to secure the global supply chain from port to port: the Port Security Grant Program, the International Port Security Program, the US-VISIT biometrics at-sea collection program, the Container Security Initiative, and others.
- Intelligence and information sharing. The reorganization of the entire national intelligence apparatus under a single director of National Intelligence – a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission – is still evolving after the Office of the DNI was established in April 2005, but terrorism-related information sharing across the intelligence community has greatly improved after the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Seventy-two fusion centers across the nation combine the resources of federal, state, local, tribal, and private partners. The government has also taken steps to facilitate the exchange of terrorism- and crime-related information with international partners.
In addition, several programs have been established to encourage information sharing both from the top down and the bottom up: The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative trains state and local law enforcement officers in the recognition of terrorism- and crime-related indicators and behaviors; it also standardizes how such indicators are documented, shared, and analyzed with other agencies. The new National Terrorism Advisory System, or NTAS, provides real-time information to the public about specific credible threats.
- Protecting Cyber Networks and Critical Infrastructure.While DHS is directly responsible for protecting the government’s own facilities and networks, the federal government has little direct authority over private infrastructure – 85 percent of which is privately owned and operated. Mitigating the risk of threats to this larger portion of American infrastructure is largely a private-sector task, but DHS facilitates this process through a multitude of programs and initiatives that offer information and expert advice about threats and best practices; research and development into new technologies; training and education for partners at the state and local level; security audits; resiliency estimates; vulnerability assessments; and more.
DHS support to state, local, and private entities often takes the form of grant funding through the Port Security, Transit Security and Buffer Zone Protection programs to support critical infrastructure.
The department’s rapidly maturing cybersecurity program was given a boost in December 2010, when Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano and then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates signed a Memorandum of Agreement. Embedding defense cyber analysts within DHS, and detailing civil liberties, privacy, and legal personnel to the DoD’s National Security Agency, the collaboration aims to both strengthen the skillset of the nation’s cybersecurity personnel and to ensure the protection of the fundamental rights of civilians.
The achievements catalogued in the Department of Homeland Security’s self-report — in addition to its work in transportation security, intelligence and information sharing, and cyber security – include:
- Securing U.S. Borders. Ensuring the integrity of national borders is a massive, complex effort, with law enforcement as a last line of defense. Prevention – strengthening security, reducing fraud, and improving the reliability of personal identification documents – has been the key to transforming the way visitors enter the Western Hemisphere by air, land, and sea.
When the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) was implemented in 2009, requiring documentation from every person crossing a national border between Canada, the United States, and Mexico, the percent of vehicle passengers DHS was able to check against law enforcement databases jumped from 5 percent to 97 percent. A variety of other programs – the Visa Waiver Program, Visa Security Program, US-VISIT biometric identification process, and the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program, among others – are aimed at standardizing secure identification for travelers and reducing the incidence of fraud and misuse.
Boots-on-the-ground enforcement, through programs such as the Southwest Border Initiative, combines a stepped-up law enforcement presence (17,700 Border Patrol agents, compared to 9,100 in 2001) with a more integrated and larger network of screening points, including the transportation system and access to vital areas – another key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.
- Emergency preparedness and response. 9/11 – and later, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – brought into focus the shortcomings of emergency communications systems; police officers and firefighters from different jurisdictions were often unable to communicate with each other during these responses.
Viewing communication and collaboration as key to emergency preparedness, response, and recovery, the government has implemented several strategies to strengthen interoperable communications across the country. DHS’ Office of Emergency Communications has dedicated more than $4 billion in grant funding to state and local entities, to ensure that emergency responders can communicate during natural disasters, terror attacks, or other catastrophic events. In 2011, the Obama administration renewed a proposal to establish a nationwide broadband network for public safety officials.
Since 9/11, DHS and partners have made significant progress in establishing and refining a unified Incident Command System. The federal government also encourages private-sector readiness through programs such as PS-Prep, a certification program for private entities; Ready Business, a program providing materials for businesses to succeed in continuity planning and crisis management; and Citizen Corps, a community-level training, education, and collaboration program.
In the conclusion to its report, DHS acknowledges that its work “is ongoing and many challenges remain.” There is still much being debated in both the public and private sectors: Does the department do too much, or not enough, to protect the nation? Has the $636 billion expense been worth it? Does the department do a good job of setting priorities and assigning resources accordingly? Has it developed reliable methods for measuring the success of its policies and programs? Are its missions clearly defined?
The department remains an active participant in these debates, which should not overshadow the importance of its achievements: In less than a decade, the federal government has mobilized resources, built and strengthened relationships, and innovated new approaches and capabilities to homeland security, all while becoming one of the most heavily scrutinized federal agencies. What the future holds for DHS is uncertain – but whatever it is, you can be sure you’ll hear about it.