Adversaries are watching our American security leadership

The sudden departure of top officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the single focus on security at the southern border risks undermining critical functions of the agency we helped to create. It also undoubtedly makes the United States less safe. Helping hurricane and wildfire victims and their communities recover, routine checks at our ports of entry to track terror suspects and possible immigration violations, saving people off our rugged and distant coasts, and tracking all the malicious ones and zeros that adversaries use to exploit our computer networks are all critical jobs. The mission of the department is to secure the nation from the “many threats we face.” It is not just to focus on border security challenges or, more specifically, land next to Mexico.

As two people who shepherded the department through its creation and early growing pains, we find it particularly troubling that such a focus is being placed on the border above all else. It was indeed a “failure of imagination” combined with a series of mistakes across the United States intelligence and law enforcement communities that let the 9/11 hijackers slip through our systems. When the department was created in late 2002, lawmakers, including one of us, intended for it to prevent future attacks and security risks of all kinds, within a careful assessment of priorities.

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The road has been long and very bumpy. There have been major wins as well as major challenges over the last 17 years of department history. In the win column, we have in place fully functioning “trusted traveler” systems for air and border travelers through the Nexus, Precheck, and Global Entry security ograms. These programs help the department sort those who pose no threat and focus carefully on those who might. As an added benefit, according to former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the Transportation Security Administration seizes thousands of guns, many of which are loaded, that are packed in carry on luggage.

Furthermore, the department has worked closely and methodically with American cities to protect key targets and share intelligence that cops on the beat can actually use. In one case, in which we were both involved, a troubled individual was producing ricin in his hotel room. Most people do not know what ricin looks like and what to do if they find it. A program ensured that easy to understand descriptions were made available to cops in the area in case they ever found the deadly substance, which they did.

Major American companies would tell you the assistance provided by the department after crippling cyberattacks is invaluable. Private companies are not set up to respond to sophisticated and highly resourced attacks by our adversaries, and the department has proactively sent out alerts about key techniques and global trends that have made a significant impact. Plus, their efforts to address the WannaCry malware incident that shut down hospitals in the midst of surgeries without access to patient records was exactly the response that we should expect from the department.

Challenges have included the poor response to victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, though efforts have markedly improved since then. There are also a variety of programs that have overspent without much to show for them. The department continues to require broad management and budgetary maturity as it manages a far flung and sprawling enterprise. Important reforms have begun, but they require ongoing focus and permanent leadership confirmed by the Senate to bring to fruition.

Ongoing problems include keeping confidence in the American system for the 2020 election and securing the nearly all digital 2020 census, notably digital problems that respect no border. As it has been painfully illustrated over the past several years, domestic terrorism of all sorts, in particular right wing extremist violence, is on the rise, and the department must work with the FBI and local officials to address this growing threat. These are major undertakings that require presidential level attention.

There are also opportunities ahead for the department to shine. The implementation of 5G networks will be game changing for the global economy. They also pose significant security concerns as more data will be transiting those systems even faster and in a larger scale than we enjoy today. Last month, the department began reviewing the risks posed by 5G technology by analyzing the broad risks to the infrastructure, not specific actors or types of equipment. Looking at risks across the entire 5G system will be critical for leaders to make informed decisions about the tools that will power our advanced communications over the next few decades.

Security does not mean preventing the free flow of trade and traffic across our borders. It means lawfully protecting what should come in and out. Both the Bush and Obama administrations embraced this policy, and there were hopes that it would continue to be the policy of the Trump administration. At the end of the day, our adversaries are watching.

Jane Harman is the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served nine terms in Congress as a representative from California and was ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Michael Leiter is an attorney and senior national security analyst for NBC News. He served four years as director of the National Counterterrorism Center under both President George Bush and President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal 3 ways government can help clean up Twitter MORE.