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The Real State of Homeland Security

A few weeks back, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano went to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to deliver her second annual “State of Homeland Security” address. Before a packed room of reporters and interested stakeholders, she went through a perfunctory list of the Department’s accomplishments over the past year. While heralding the diverse and substantial homeland security work of the people that work for her, she said next to nothing about one of the truest measures of her department’s true “state” – its budget.

While her remarks were meant to reinforce the Obama administration’s stewardship of DHS as he prepares for a tough reelection fight, the phrase, “put your money where your mouth is” has a loud ring if you want to know the real priorities in homeland security. Words are simply that, and none of them can pay a bill or make an investment unless there are real dollars behind them. In terms of this year’s budget submission, the Obama administration is requesting $39.5 billion for its net discretionary funding for DHS.

Compared to a number of federal departments, that’s still a sizable amount of money, but it does not come close to the biggest of requestors – the Department of Defense, which is requesting $614 billion in for the next fiscal year.

Fortunately for Napolitano she does not have to defend the big “ask” of the Pentagon or its considerable “cuts,” but what she is requesting tells you a lot about her department’s priorities. If you ignore the various expenditures for aviation and border security, FEMA, U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Coast Guard, and other operational components, the greatest investment that DHS is making is in cybersecurity.

In their FY 2013 submission, Napolitano and the Obama administration are requesting $769 million from Congress for DHS’ National Cyber Security Division (NCSD). Its charge is to “protect federal networks and coordinate with the private sector on safeguarding critical infrastructure systems such as utility grids.”

NCSD’s and DHS’ challenge in the cyber arena may be even more daunting than the threats the nation faced from terrorists following 9/11. Instead of being on the lookout for suspicious persons with box-cutters or concealed explosives, the cyber threat is far more amorphous. In this arena, the enemy can attack any and all infrastructures with malware, vicious code, and keystrokes without ever leaving the comfort of wherever in the country (or the world) they happen to be located.

Furthermore, they can magnify their impact, costs, and consequences far beyond any of the traditional means of terrorism. From novice hacker to criminal mastermind to nation-state actor, these threats and capacities expand faster than any al Qaeda franchise anywhere in the world. If a cyber threat wants to send a message or hurt you, it can. Unfortunately, you might not know of the assault until after the cyber threat has bored into your systems and it’s too late.

The administration’s investments in cybersecurity are the right ones, but it’s not enough money. The truth is, there will never be enough money to deal with the cyber threat or any of the threats the department is charged with protecting us against.

That was true when Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff led DHS and the department was shoveled money by Congress it never even requested. It’s also true under Napolitano, but her task is a bit tougher because she has to manage a department in far more austere times. The times of spending with abandon have come to an end. Persons on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill are crying for far more fiscally sane expenditures. That’s hard for any elected official to do in an election year, and it is what makes another part of the fiscal year 2013 submission so interesting.

Since its creation, DHS and other federal departments and agencies (i.e., Justice, Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, etc.) have distributed hundreds of millions of dollars in grant funds. These monies have bought new fire engines, radios, and public safety equipment; trained countless first responders and emergency managers about the range of hazards and threats that are out there; paid millions of dollars in spending and overtime to support events such as political conventions, Super Bowls, and disaster areas; and been spread over every community in the United States. While originally intended to go to state, local, and tribal governments to offset many of the post 9/11 costs that each would have to bear, the eligibility for grant funds has expanded over the years to include a wide array of NGOs, citizen groups, and more through new grant programs.

For all of the eligibility, purchasing power, and flexibility that these grant programs have created, the state of homeland security now has one of its biggest challenges. Those eligible to apply for grant funds have never been wider or more diverse, but the actual pool of funds is shrinking as the Obama administration looks for ways to cut spending at DHS and other federal departments and agencies.

For the past few years, DHS and others have tried in vain to consolidate a number of grant programs and their funds. For example, in this year’s budget submission, the Obama administration is working to consolidate as many grant programs as possible. For the coming fiscal year, that includes eliminating FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Fund, which got $36 million last year. DHS has stated that these efforts can be covered under other grant programs.

Additionally, DHS/FEMA explained in its recently announced Grant Guidance for FY 2012 that preparedness grants would be reduced by nearly $1 billion from the FY 2011 enacted level and $1.5 billion below the president’s FY 2012 request.

The Democratic leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee branded these cuts as “rash and shortsighted and placed the blame squarely in the laps of their Republican counterparts.

With just over $1.3 billion to spend on grants for FY 2012, House Democrats have estimated grant reductions that are fairly significant, including:

  • State Homeland Security Program by 44 percent;
  • Urban Areas Security Initiative by 26 percent;
  • Port Security Grant Program by 59 percent; and,
  • Transit Security Grant Program by 56 percent.

With reductions as steep as this, it will mean that more and more citizen-based groups, such as those in Citizen Corps as well as state, local, and tribal governments, ports, and NGOs are going to have to find ways other than federal grant funds to be sustainable.

There have already been warnings from a couple of different studies about the consequences of what budget cuts will do to federal, state and local communities’ ability to respond to some of the threats we face.

Consolidation in any program is never a bad idea when it improves efficiency and output, but efforts by the Obama administration and its predecessor, the Bush administration, to consolidate any grant programs have often run into the road block of all road blocks – Congress.

With anywhere from 88 to 120 congressional committees providing oversight to DHS and homeland security matters, the youngest of the Cabinet departments is like a ping pong ball volleyed between competing jurisdictions and political gamesmanship. With powerful political patrons on both sides of the aisle steering funds to projects back home and ensuring that no grant program ever goes away, any effort to streamline grant programs by the administration is tossed aside by Congress.

For as much as the Framers wanted “checks and balances,” they would be mortified at the complete foolishness that exemplifies congressional oversight of homeland security matters. Leaders of both political parties in Congress have failed to correct this situation and fulfill the one recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that has never been addressed. Congress would do well to take a stroll through a house of mirrors to see one of the homeland’s most significant trouble-makers.

Although the nation is smarter and better prepared in the decade following the 9/11 attacks, the state of homeland security is not getting any easier. It’s getting tougher. While there have been no successful attacks by terrorists since 9/11, the threats remain ever present and dynamic. The rage of Mother Nature and all of the other regular homeland assignments should also not be ignored, because they too can leave permanent scars that take years, if not decades, to heal. In battling all of these conditions, budget funds on every public and private sector level are going to be getting tougher to come by while competition for every dollar becomes even more cutthroat.

No one ever said this job was going to get easier with more time or even better with more money. The state of homeland security will always be a condition that will have to balance risk, liberties, costs and consequences. Its greatest challenge will be discussing and executing on each of those points with skill, honesty and candor. On some levels that is occurring, but on others, it’s painfully obvious that we have so much further to go – and that will always be the measure of the state of homeland security.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...