Friday, December 5, 2008

Homeland Security in the Obama Administration

I received a copy of a report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) from my friend Claire Rubin a JHSEM. Neither candidate spoke much about issues of homeland security or emergency management during the campaign. The CSIS article is entitled “Homeland Security in an Obama Administration” and covers eight categories the President-elect intends to address during his administration.

Defeating Global Terrorism

• Update strategies/ capabilities to fight terrorism
• Re-equip, retrain, and expand armed forces
• Improve public diplomacy

This seems consistent with his pledges during the campaign to refocus the war on terror more in Afghanistan. These were developed before the attack in Mumbai and the advent of Somali pirates. The attacks in Mumbai could be launched anywhere without the tell-tale signs associated with weapons of mass destruction. The increase threat of pirates means the role of the Navy will have to shift from less of a force-on-force role to something akin to its earlier role of protecting commerce shipping.

Nuclear Security

• Secure and control fissile materials
• Build international capacity to prevent theft and spread of nuclear materials
• Appoint White House Coordinator for Nuclear Security
• Set the goal of a nuclear-free world

These are very laudable goals but other than the coordinator, have a low probability of success. Other administrations have tried to reduce or eliminate the spread of nuclear weapons. Russia, China and now Iran will prove especially challenging in trying to meet these goals. Both Russia and China see the United States as a waning superpower, they more than others will not be interested in reducing or eliminating their nuclear weapons programs.


• Build capacity to mitigate consequences of bio-terror attacks
• Speed development of drugs used to fight bio-terror attacks
• Lead international effort to diminish impact of major biological epidemics

Biological agents are inherently difficult to use. Those producing the weapons face contamination or death before the weapons can be employed. The dissipation of the biological agent once the weapon is used reduces concentration levels. Winds and rain may prevent airborne biological agents from being effective. Chemical agents and high explosives are easier to handle and most likely will be the preferred choice of terrorists seeking WMDs.

Information Network Protection

• Protect IT infrastructure needed for U.S. economy
• Develop comprehensive cyber security and response strategy
• Prevent corporate cyber-espionage
• Mandate private data security standards

The big challenge for IT security lies in that either an external or internal agent can launch attacks. We hear often of lone attackers in India or the Philippines but the real threat of course comes from employees who may be plants or turned by the attackers. Technology moves faster than our ability to legislate standards and develop strategies. Perhaps no other area requires eternal vigilance than in the IT arena.

Infrastructure Modernization

• Improve the efficiency and security of the U.S. electricity grid
• Invest in recapitalizing transportation infrastructure

Of all of the areas, this one perhaps holds the most opportunity to help our economy. I’ve advocated before the need to improve mass transportation. Developing light rail systems between cities and revamping our long neglected long-haul passenger rail lines will increase jobs as well as help reduce the number of cars on the road.

Critical Infrastructure Protection

• Revamp national infrastructure protection plan
• Improve chemical plant security
• Track spent nuclear fuel
• Improve airline security
• Bolster port security and cargo screening
• Protect public transportation
• Protect local water supplies
• Improve border security

I’m only guessing here but with President-elect Obama’s selection of Governor Napolitano as his Secretary of Homeland Security, border security will see a dramatic increase over some of the other critical infrastructure areas. I also don’t’ see the new Secretary of Homeland Secretary erecting static barriers as much as trying to develop policies to reduce immigration issues.

Intelligence Activities and Civil Liberties

• Improve information sharing and analysis
• Revise the PATRIOT act to preserve civil liberties
• Update FISA to provide greater oversight for warrantless wiretapping
• Restore habeas corpus to those deemed enemy combatants

I’ve not been a fan of the Patriot Act since it was first crafted because of the circumstances surrounding its creation. The emotions immediately following 9-11 did not permit proper discourse to be conducted. The same for FISA and terming those suspected of terrorism as “enemy combatants”. It was an expeditious means during the days and months after 9-11 but it is time to relook at these policies.

Emergency Preparedness and Response

• Allocate funds based on risk
• Emergency response plan improvement
• Improve communications systems interoperability

Allocating funds based on risk sounds perfectly sound but is fraught with political angst. I’m not certain how you improve emergency response planning beyond what is already known; getting agencies to sit down together and start planning and then practicing their plan. The one constant is the lack of time agencies can devote to exercises and joint planning sessions. Communications interoperability remains one of the common threads in after action reports. The problem isn’t so much in the upgrade of systems; it is in getting everyone on compatible systems at the same time.

If President-elect Obama can keep his administration focused on accomplishing the above, the country will certainly be better prepared to respond to a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

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