Deconstructing DHS

FRAMINGHAM (03/15/2004) - When the national antiterrorism threat condition changed hue from Elevated Yellow to High Orange last December, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, following what had become standard procedure for such alerts, issued a statement to the public explaining the move

"The strategic indicators, including al-Qaida's continued desire to carry out attacks against our homeland, are perhaps greater now than at any point since Sept. 11, 2001," Ridge said. "The information we have indicates that extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will either rival or exceed the attacks that occurred...two years ago.... We expect al-Qaida will strive for new attacks designed to be more devastating than the Sept. 11 attack, possibly involving nonconventional weapons such as chemical or biological agents."

Finally, Ridge said, "I encourage you to continue with your holiday plans. Gather with your family and friends, and enjoy the spirit of the season."

This was an extraordinary non sequitur, yet it perfectly demonstrated the paradoxical nature of DHS's mission: Alert but don't scare. Be honest but reassure. Prevent but don't lock down. Delicate balances abound.

Ridge knew that the plausible but unverifiable notion that terrorists might like to disrupt America's holidays would weigh on the economy and our spirits. But both may have sunk even harder had he omitted the entreaty to spread holiday cheer. On the other hand, if he had resisted issuing an orange alert at all when credible chatter was flying about -- something DHS had tried before -- nerves would have frayed over that too. Or worse, DHS could be accused of ineffective idleness, a serious charge when you're spending billions of dollars to build a mega-bureaucracy. Ridge's statement may have whipsawed citizens, but what was the alternative?

The answer to that question is unclear, whether it's applied to orange alerts or to DHS as a whole. In fact, for both you could correctly say that so far no one knows exactly how DHS will fulfill its mission or, more importantly, if it even can.

In this issue, CSO launches a series of stories, to be presented during the next few months, called "Deconstructing DHS." The series will take a look at how DHS rises to the precarious challenge of doing enough to improve security, but not so much as to smother liberty. We'll consider the ways in which DHS and its constituents -- citizens and partners like you -- are adjusting to life ruled by a new, never-before-tested risk equation. Broadly, this equation might be expressed as: protection x the appearance of protection + a federal bureaucratic infrastructure = a lower chance of terrorist attack. Or, as USA Today put it, "Does a small city like Zanesville (Ohio) really need a radiation detector and nerve agent test kit? Does Appleton, Wis., need a fully outfitted bomb squad? Does Grand Forks, N.D., need a semiarmored van and decontamination tents?" For CSO and, we believe, for our readers, these questions and others like them are not rhetorical.

As part of our coverage, we will profile one of the agencies absorbed by DHS, to help readers understand the continuing evolution of the DHS mission. While that mission might seem obvious on its face, much that some of the recombinant agencies formerly did (and may continue to do) doesn't entirely jibe with their new roles in DHS. How, then, do they reinvent themselves to satisfy their new agency parent while still carrying out some traditional missions?

There wasn't a lot of time to consider highly complex problems like that when DHS was catapulted into being. Nor was there time to straighten out the complex skein of federal, state and local money required to make DHS a success. Witness the formula for funding homeland security at the state and local levels, which initially would have allotted seven times as much money per capita to Wyoming as to New York. Thus, the economics of homeland defense will be the focus of another feature in our series.

We will round out the coverage with a look at DHS's approach to information security, where the poor overall quality of the infrastructure combined with a lack of controls create a vulnerable platform ripe for attack.

In addition to the unresolved questions, we'll also mark DHS's progress since 9/11. "Everybody agrees, airports are safer today than they were," says Michael Hershman, a veteran of military intelligence who now runs Civitas Group, a consultancy, with former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and former cybersecurity czar Richard Clarke.

We'll also delve into areas where DHS stands accused of failing to improve security -- just recently, for example, news reports described a DHS unable to uncover terrorist financing networks because of Washington bureaucratic wrangling -- the very intelligence gridlock a massive, centralized security agency was supposed to sort out.

Accusations of failures -- large and small -- are unavoidable for DHS, since it exists at the nexus between the mandate to ensure public safety and the task of creating the über-agency that will carry out the mandate. It's as if we've had to send a corps of basic training cadets on a U.N. peacekeeping mission. The task at hand is tricky at best, herculean and quixotic at worst.

That is where we start our series, at the crossroads of lowercase homeland security, which waits for no one, and uppercase Homeland Security, which will demand patience and require a significant amount of time to become the fully mature agency capable of protecting us. Senior Editor Todd Datz's history of Homeland Security grounds the entire series of articles with a clear explanation—how and why we find ourselves on this particular path toward improving homeland security, and where down the path the decisions we make now will take us.

Except for the minority of companies that own a piece of the critical infrastructure, the business of homeland security might seem remote to most of you. We will argue the opposite: In a way, we all stand somewhere in the path of terrorist threats. Goods you buy arrive here in containers, on ships that steer into American ports; your employees travel by air, to places that are targets for terrorism; partners and partners' partners own elements of the critical infrastructure, take on new costs to protect it and, in the end, pass some of those costs on to you. In the interconnected world of modern business, there is scarcely a company that won't be touched by homeland security in some way.

So read on. We encourage your feedback along the way and hope you find "Deconstructing DHS" a worthwhile investment, starting with Datz's explanation of the founding of DHS, the choreography necessary to direct 23 federal agencies, 180,000 employees, 88 congressional committees and US$37 billion scattered around Washington and beyond onto a single stage, all with the same script.

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