Homeland security is critical as hurricane season makes waves

Homeland security is critical as hurricane season makes waves
© Getty Images

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, many may have missed the start of hurricane season. Yet as a former senior leader at the Homeland Security Department, I can confidently say both are not unnoticed at the agency. The career men and women protecting our country are working tirelessly with the resources they have at hand to keep Americans safe.

But the question that many are asking, given the lessons of the pandemic, is can the Homeland Security Department address multiple storms at the same time? A look back at the unique history and structure of the agency suggests otherwise. It is fighting, in many ways, with one hand tied behind its back. Yet looking at the alternative governance models, there may be a better way to tackle the storms ahead this summer and beyond.

Eighteen years ago, the Homeland Security Department was created after 9/11 to leverage our national security resources in order to prevent future attacks. Its leadership, operations, and oversight structure were arranged specifically to take on terrorism challenges, which were the biggest threat of the day. Unfortunately, that structure has changed very little since then, while the definition of enemies has grown far beyond terrorists.

ADVERTISEMENT

From the start, the agency had a decentralized structure. Compared with the Defense Department, the authorities of the secretary of the Homeland Security Department are relatively weak. Most critical decisions fall to its components, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Transportation Security Authority, entities that existed before. Leaders of those directorates fought to maintain control over their missions even as they were folded into a larger agency. With such an amalgamation, the secretary of the Homeland Security Department got squeezed.

This patchwork has also created challenges for the Homeland Security Department to mobilize effectively with regard to Congress. There have been at least more than six dozen separate committees with an oversight authority of some aspect for the Homeland Security Department. For the secretary to make massive sweeping decisions during any crisis, or those that involve several components across multiple regions, this means that he or she must first ask several dozen entities for their blessing.

As security challenges have evolved, it is clear we need a nimbler and more unified Homeland Security Department. How can it adapt going forward? The secretary needs the ability and oversight to manage the department rather than relying on the individual components to act on their own. The hierarchy might be set up in a way which reflects that of the Defense Department, with a joint staff that has responsibility for the coordination of the security response planning and execution.

The lack of a Homeland Security Department advisor at an assistant level gives no clear path to inform the highest levels of government, including the White House. Because of this, the relevant decision making has often been deferred to the National Security Council, which is not directly tied to the Homeland Security Department on an operational basis.

We also need an empowered secretary to allow the Homeland Security Department to react more broadly and not just to a pinpointed terrorist attack. For agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Coast Guard, responses to disasters are anticipated to be handled at a state or regional level. A crisis such as a pandemic that affects every state falls outside of the expected scope of the capabilities and operations of the Homeland Security Department. Empowered leaders can streamline agency and regional efforts to act more swiftly and effectively.

ADVERTISEMENT

Finally, the Homeland Security Department should strive to conduct more operations training and planning. Exercises at the national level have not happened in the agency in years, and when they did, they were focused primarily on counterterrorism. A secretary who could lead and champion exercise planning across the agency would take the responsibility off the numerous component leaders and could expand such national exercises to the array of evolving threats that our country faces today.

There is no real way to quantify the lives protected by the brave men and women of the Homeland Security Department since it was created. Their service has demonstrated the highest levels of resolve and patriotism. But as they suit up to fight the coronavirus pandemic or a wave of hurricanes during these coming months, we owe them an agency that is resourced, coordinated, streamlined, and ready to fight on their behalf.

Francis Taylor served as undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security and as assistant secretary of diplomatic security for the Department of State now with Cambridge Global Advisors.