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The Homeland Security Professional

How education is shaping American security

When al Qaeda flew planes into the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon, there was no such thing as a “homeland security professional.” Years later, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began operations, efforts were led by capable operational experts pulled from various government agencies, but again, these were not homeland security professionals.

Since 9/11, the homeland security challenge and discipline have been in a state of perpetual change and evolution. In less than a decade, America has seen not only the development of homeland security as an effort and concept, but also as a profession. This has been helped in part by the hundreds of academic homeland security degrees, certificates, and specializations now offered at educational institutions across the country. Increasingly, America’s security challenges are met by professionals with the specific skills and knowledge to address emerging threats, assess and mitigate risk, lead colleagues, and engage the multidisciplinary nature of homeland security.

The homeland security field itself is evolving, as the security environment is constantly changing. The debates and discussions on homeland security issues in academic settings have driven how experts and scholars view and understand the homeland security challenge. As more educational institutions offer courses and programs in homeland-specific subject matter, students will have increasing opportunities to gain academic credentials and take part in shaping the homeland security field.

These opportunities, however, are recent additions to the security landscape.


The Developing Homeland Security Concept

When DHS was stood up in 2003, it integrated 22 federal agencies, bringing together tens of thousands of operational and subject-matter experts and contractors. It was the largest government reorganization since the Department of Defense was created in 1947. Each agency that fell under the homeland security umbrella brought with it its own longstanding culture, mission focus, and training, which made it challenging to achieve an integrated, cohesive department.

“At the beginning, everyone came from the four corners,” said Randy Beardsworth, a member of the transition team that created DHS and later the acting under secretary for the Border and Transportation Security Directorate. “It was a mishmash of people coming in from different fields” – the U.S. Coast Guard, the military, the intelligence community – and “a heavy dose of political people.”

While the first DHS employees independently held skills, knowledge, and operational backgrounds critical to the homeland security effort, there were few among them who held the breadth of knowledge and experience needed for integrated leadership and the department’s development.

“There was no homeland security professional,” said Beardsworth. “The closest you got to it were people who had expertise in more than one area. The people who were managing the departments had a very strong operational background and generally used the same language in terms of missions and operations.”


The Polytechnic Institute of New York University cybersecurity graduate program offers students and working professionals online learning opportunities. Pictured is Program Director Nasir Memon and students. Courtesy of NYU-Poly

There was a growing need, however, for employees who not only understood operational realities but who also had a developed knowledge of the homeland security mission and the analytical and leadership tools it requires. While DHS worked to develop this capability internally, it also turned to contractors to assist its efforts. This in some ways limited the department, said Dr. Stephen Flynn, who was an adviser to the Hart-Rudman Commission, which released a detailed and robust review of U.S. national security requirements only months before the 9/11 attacks.

“There were so few indigenous capabilities for agencies” at DHS in the beginning, he said. Relying and investing so heavily in contractor support “had a limitation in that you weren’t building up an in-house base of expertise within the agencies.”

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Justin Hienz writes on counterterrorism, violent extremism and homeland security. In addition to his journalistic...