TCS Daily

On the Right Path

By Brian E. Finch - September 21, 2005 12:00 AM

As America recovers from Hurricane Katrina, another storm is growing ever more menacing for the Department of Homeland Security. Accusations of institutional failure by DHS in its response to Katrina increase each day. No target has been left untouched -- Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown and his boss, Secretary Michael Chertoff suffered some serious slings and arrows. Many have questioned whether DHS has been too obsessed with terrorist attacks and whether FEMA belongs within DHS. Some are even asking whether the DHS itself was a good idea, as after two and a half years it seems to be nonfunctional.

There are many legitimate questions to be asked in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Undoubtedly any number of mistakes will be revealed in the DHS response, and some will use them to call for changes in the leadership of DHS or even its dismantling. Before DHS is disassembled, however, we need to take a step back and examine where Secretary Chertoff wants to take the Department. In doing so, it may surprise a lot of people to realize that DHS is in fact on the right path.

To say that DHS hit the ground running when it was stood up in March 2003 is a terrible understatement. The demands and stresses on DHS were immediate, and the fighting over its performance have been unceasing. Questions abounded about where DHS should focus its efforts and how best to manage the Herculean task of merging 22 individual agencies and 180,000 plus employees. Over 80 committees in the U.S. Congress, totaling 505 of the 535 elected representatives, claimed some form of jurisdiction over DHS and its efforts, and each of them had wildly varying visions of its mission. Not surprisingly the net result was a department that by its own admission "operated out of its in box", lurching from crisis to crisis and had little to no time to focus itself on long term strategy.

Undoubtedly, former Secretary Tom Ridge and his staff performed with great skill and effectiveness in the first two years of the existence of DHS. However, with the resignation of Secretary Ridge and a number of his deputies in early 2005, a unique opportunity presented itself. Under a new Secretary, DHS could take the opportunity to pause for a moment and decide whether its own internal structure and priorities were appropriate for the multitude of tasks it had been assigned. Enter Michael Chertoff.

In one of his very first public speeches as Secretary, Mr. Chertoff announced that it was his intention to make DHS a more flexible and agile department, one that could quickly refocus its efforts to meet emerging risks while simultaneously being able to develop long term strategic plans. To achieve that goal, Secretary Chertoff announced what he referred to as the "Second Stage Review". 2SR, as it was known, would be a top to bottom review of the structure of DHS and the risks it must face. Secretary Chertoff made clear that giving DHS the ability to effectively meet the risks facing the U.S. was his priority, even if that meant wholesale changes to the structure of the department.

Following months of intense speculation, Secretary Chertoff made his vision known in mid-July 2005. Wholesale changes were indeed in the offing for DHS. Gone were two Under Secretaries (Border & Transportation Security and Emergency Preparedness & Response). Replacing them would be an Under Secretary for Policy who would provide DHS with one person responsible for strategic planning, and an Under Secretary for Preparedness, who would oversee all of the DHS efforts to prepare for attacks and disasters.

In a move that has been very underreported in the last few weeks, Secretary Chertoff also announced that he was making FEMA an independent agency within DHS that would report directly to him. Secretary Chertoff proposed this move because, as he said, "DHS has sometimes been viewed as a terrorist-fighting entity, but of course we are an all-hazards Department. Our responsibilities certainly include not only fighting the forces of terrorism, but also fighting the forces of natural disasters." The Secretary even noted how Hurricane Dennis, which has just blown in the previous weekend "was a reminder . . . of how potent those forces can be." In order to best prepare for natural threats, FEMA would report directly to the Secretary so it could "focus on its historic and vital mission of response and recovery. . .".

Other changes were introduced as well. Secretary Chertoff created a Chief Medical Officer to oversee medical preparedness efforts within DHS, an Assistant Secretary to head up cyber security matters and has vowed to increase coordination with states and improve their grant funding mechanisms. He even (and has since repeatedly) committed to improving the SAFETY Act, a Federal law that allows providers of anti-terror products and services to deploy without fear of the masses of tort lawyers waiting to ply their trade following any tragedy.

What does that tell us about the future of DHS? It means that we have in place a Secretary who understands the scope of his responsibilities and the need to have at his disposal the tools and structure necessary to fulfill them. He was willing on Day One to come in and say we need to reengineer the department so it works better. This kind of retooling of a Federal agencies does not occur very often -- it took 40 years for the Department of Defense to do so, yet only two for DHS. Secretary Chertoff should be applauded for these efforts, and his vision cannot be ignored as we examine the lessons from Katrina.

Perhaps when we have a moment to take a collective breath we will realize that while it is good to ask questions about and demand better performance from DHS, it is in fact well on its way to providing the services the nation needs. Hopefully this will happen before some ill advised forces from Washington pushes it off course.

To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.


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