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Overhauling Homeland Security

Author: Greg Bruno
March 2, 2009

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President Barack Obama has been quick to distinguish his wartime policy from that of his predecessor. During his first month in office the new U.S. president ordered troop commitments refocused to Afghanistan; downplayed "war on terror" rhetoric (AP); and sought to reassure Muslims overseas that America's struggle is not against Islam or its adherents. But on the issue of domestic security, Obama's vision has emerged more slowly. Aside from vague vows to "defeat terrorism worldwide," "prevent nuclear terrorism," and "strengthen American biosecurity"--claims made on the campaign trail--the first days of the Obama administration have offered few specifics on a new homeland security strategy.

That may be changing. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers on February 25 she has ordered a review of programs developed during the Bush administration to examine efficiency, transparency, communication, and security initiatives. "We need to hold people accountable, uphold professionalism across DHS, and act wisely with taxpayer money," Napolitano said, noting she has appointed a chief privacy officer to ensure new initiatives do not infringe on Americans' civil liberties. Without offering specifics, Napolitano  has said she will seek to overhaul President Bush's immigration policies (ChiTrib), which focused on raids and criminal prosecutions. She has also criticized border protection measures under Bush, saying she favors tougher laws against employers who hire illegal immigrants. "You cannot build a fence from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, and call that an immigration policy," she told NPR last month.

The White House, too, is looking to revamp its homeland security policies. President Obama is exploring an overhaul (WashPost) of the White House's National Security Council (NSC), including incorporating some or all of the functions of the Homeland Security Council, set up during the Bush administration to advise the president, into those of the NSC. Lawmakers have voiced skepticism about the plan. Additionally, the president's budget request seeks to increase DHS funding for transportation, cyber security, biological security, and improved coordination with state agencies.

Congress, meanwhile, is considering its own changes to Bush administration programs. Michael L. Alexander, staff director of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said on February 20 that Senate leaders hope to pass legislation this year improving oversight of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and safeguarding domestic ports. Homeland security experts say lawmakers could also scale back ambitions for a controversial border fence between the United States and Mexico and scuttle the Real ID program, introduced in 2005 to standardize state-issued driver's licenses. Napolitano has been a leading critic (WashTimes) of the ID program.

While the U.S. domestic security apparatus remains a work in progress, the range of threats appears to be growing. A surge in drug-related violence in Mexico is raising concerns of cross-border spillover in southern states. Elsewhere, intelligence officials are eyeing Canada (Defense News) with new concern over potential terrorist infiltration; homegrown radicals are drawing the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); and authorities are tracking emerging dangers overseas, from the proliferation of biological weapons (PDF) to fallout from the economic crisis.

How far the expanding menu of threats will go to encourage agency reforms in unclear. Michael E. O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution argues that the list of vulnerabilities demands swift action, from beefed-up border security to stockpiling antidotes to biological weapons. But political insiders say an entrenched bureaucracy could derail attempts to streamline homeland security operations. Exhibit A is the tangled web of jurisdiction on Capitol Hill, experts say. As many as 108 different congressional committees provide some level of oversight to DHS. Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says the overlaps can impede agency initiatives, especially when politicians engage in turf wars over funding. "We need really a public outcry," I. Lanier Avant of the House Committee on Homeland Security said on February 20. But Avant says Congress will only feel the urgency to streamline jurisdiction in the event of a homeland security disaster.

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