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Rethinking DHS to prioritize human security and homeland services

Greg Nash

This year marks two decades since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our country. Among the many responses to those attacks was the creation of a massive government department focused on “protecting the homeland.” At the time, that largely meant ensuring that nothing like the catastrophe of 9/11 would ever happen again. 

But what does “homeland security” mean today? And what do Americans need from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)? 

One of us is a former Deputy Secretary of Defense, with a career focused on keeping Americans safe. The other spent three decades advocating with governments to center respect for human rights in their foreign and domestic policies. We view DHS from very different perspectives, but we both believe that DHS has become seriously out of balance with America’s needs. We need a new vision for the department that prioritizes responding to these needs and takes a broader view of what it means to keep the nation secure. 

Today, the most serious risks to America’s safety and prosperity — natural disasters, pandemic disease, cyberattacks and domestic extremism — are borderless by nature or actually originate here at home. 

If DHS is to keep America safe and prosperous for the next 20 years, it will need to focus and recalibrate its priorities. In a new report by the Center for American Progress, we propose that DHS move away from a threat-oriented model and toward a “safety and services” approach. 

What does this mean in practice? A refocused DHS should invest more energy and resources in: connecting state and local officials to federal resources; communicating threat information between the government and the public; facilitating the lawful and secure movement of commerce, travel and people; welcoming aspiring citizens and other immigrants; and helping people in times of need as the go-to resource for disaster relief and emergency management. This new emphasis and structure would enable DHS to surge its response capacity to the most pressing threats, focus where it is best suited to act and lead among other federal agencies, and better align its workforce with its primary mission.

This also means dialing back its focus on enforcement activities that fall outside these priorities. DHS is the nation’s largest law enforcement agency — more than twice the size of the Department of Justice — yet many of the enforcement activities the department pursues overlap with or are duplicative of the work of other government agencies.   

While some law enforcement duties appropriately reside with DHS and enable a safety and services model to function, others extend beyond DHS’s mission and often result in duplication, bureaucratic headwinds, and in some cases have led to overreach and abuse. Law enforcement activities that focus primarily on criminal investigations or enforcing federal laws, and do not enable other safety and services functions within DHS to operate, do not belong at a reimagined DHS.

The Biden administration and Congress can transform DHS into an agency that provides greater value to the American people and those who visit or seek safety or opportunity here. And DHS has the potential to meet this moment. They should work together to implement this new framework by building DHS’s capacity to connect, communicate, facilitate, welcome and help. By putting the department and its workforce in a better position to focus on the challenges it is best suited to meet, the Biden administration and Congress can ensure that DHS continues to fulfill its critical mission for all those who rely on a safe and prosperous America. 

Rudy deLeon is a former Deputy Secretary of Defense, and he is currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. 

Elisa Massimino is  the former president of Human Rights First, and she is currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. 

Tags 9/11 attacks cyberattacks Department of Homeland Security DHS Homegrown terrorism National security Natural disasters Pandemics

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