The future of the Department of Homeland Security

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The Department of Homeland Security was organized in the aftermath of 9/11. The threats to the U.S. look somewhat different nearly 20 years later, with the rise of great powers and now, the emergence of a new and scary pandemic. That’s prompted think tank The Atlantic Council to launch a big review called The Future of DHS project. For what it’s all about, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the project leader and Atlantic Council senior fellow, Tom Warrick.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Warrick, good to have you on.

Tom Warrick: Glad to be with you Tom.

Tom Temin: What prompted this? I mean, why are you doing this? And who asked you to?

Tom Warrick: So one of the things that’s true about the Department of Homeland Security is that according to every Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, it has ranked last in morale. Of all the large departments of the U. S. Government. 17 out of 17. And yet when you talk to the employees of DHS, they have enormous enthusiasm for the department’s mission, and they’re really committed to its success. I felt like a number of us did. You literally can’t talk to a DHS employees and not get 10 really good ideas of what needs to be done to fix the place. And yet, at the same time, the popular conception of DHS is driven largely by some of its more spectacular failures. For example, the problems with children of the southwest border in 2019. Hurricane Katrina. Grandmothers and others getting inappropriate pat downs at airports. And so it’s striking that you have, on the one hand a government department that is absolutely vital protecting the security of the nation. And yet it is beleaguered, you know, from the left, criticism about abolish ICE. From the right about its inability to secure the borders. And a number of us felt that it really was time to take a step back and trying to to see what can be done to try to address some of these really deep structural challenges that DHS faces. The people actually in the trenches doing the real work are so focused on the day to day that they don’t have the luxury of perspective that we’re trying to bring what you’ve done to fix the problems of the department.

Tom Temin: And I guess we should point out that you have two former secretaries as the co-chairs of this project. One from each party. You yourself have quite a bit of experience at DHS briefly review that for us. You lasted for parts of three administrations. .

Tom Warrick: Yes. So I joined the department during the Bush administration, serving with Secretary Chertoff, Secretary Napolitano, Acting Secretary Beers, Secretary Johnson through to Acting Secretary Mcaleenan. All of them are part of our senior advisory board. We also have at least four undersecretaries, dozen assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries and a lot of senior working level people who have agreed to contribute to this. So, first, this really does show the breath of interest in seriousness about making the department a better place. And in fact, a lot of these people, I have to say, have really good ideas about what could be done to make the department better.

Tom Temin: And what will your methodology be for arriving at some recommendations down the line?

Tom Warrick: We’ve organized our work into six study groups. The first of these is gonna look at the mission. You know, Tom, one of the things that has happened in the almost 20 years since 9/11 is that DHS keeps adding missions, but none of the old missions go away. It’s not like DoD where if you win a war, you could bring the troops home. DHS has had to and responsibilities in cybersecurity, election security, now pandemic response. But everything having to do with border security, aviation security, maritime security, hurricane response, all of those missions air still there. DHS has real challenges. We’re gonna look at in another study group on how it aligns resource is to national policies. The seven hours of chaos at major airports on March 14, that was an example of DHS not getting support from other parts of the federal government even when DHS knew precisely how many people were going to be coming into the airport that day. We’ll have another study group looking at public private partnerships DHS has a way of working with the private sector that is unique in the federal government. But the model really hasn’t been updated in the last 15 years. So there are going to be other study groups looking at other areas of the department. But just as there are many people who are looking at specific issues like immigration policy or counterterrorism policy or cyber security policy, what we felt there was a need to do was to look at the department as an institution because that has to be fixed in order. that DHS can successfully carry out all the things that it’s asked to do.

Tom Temin: And I just wanted to bore in a minute on that idea of whether it’s spending its resource is versus policies. And when you find out the seven hour line at the TSA checkpoints, then clearly they don’t have enough capacity and investment. That seems to be a problem in a lot of different program areas doesn’t it at DHS?

Tom Warrick: You’re absolutely right. This was merely the most recent and most painfully obvious example. But when I was in the Trump administration, the president announced new Iran policies. DHS didn’t have the ability to reallocate resources fast enough to meet those challenges. The same thing that happened in the Obama administration when ISIS became an overwhelming threat after it seized power in part of the Middle East that was the size of England. It was necessary to put together an alliance of aviation security and border security counterparts that DHS should have been able to lead. But there was no way to shift the resources to allow that to happen, ended up taking far longer than it should have. And so this is a problem that the department faces, partly because of how it was put together from 33 different components that had never really worked together. And it really does signify that the missions are important. But some of the mechanisms for how those missions were carried out really has to be looked at carefully now .

Tom Temin: Eventually, the recommendations will reach Congress. And that’s one of the problems, too, though, isn’t it? The need to perhaps streamline some of the congressional oversight apparatus?

Tom Warrick: Yes, there are more than 90 committees or subcommittees of the Congress that have some role in overseeing DHS. That’s more than half responsibility for overseeing, for instance, the Department of Defense or the Department of State. And yet we recognize the practical challenges of trying to deal with the political power centers on Capitol Hill. No one wants to give up authority or jurisdiction. So you end up having a narrow window between a presidential election and when Congress convenes. We’re going to have 90 days between November 3rd and January 4th, 2021, in which we hope to be able to persuade the new congressional leadership that it is in the interest of the country that we simplify the number of congressional committees that have oversight of DHS.

Tom Temin: So that’s your timeline, then, basically, before the end of this calendar year?

Tom Warrick: Yes, we’re very serious about this. This is not gonna be a project that will go on forever. Nor is it something we’re going to just release a report and put on the shelf. We’ve timed this precisely to be supportive of the presidential transition committees that will be established after the two party political conventions. And the hope is to be able to inform those transition committees that are going to get set up in August. Democrat or Republican. And regardless of the outcome of the November 3rd election, there’s going to need to be a fresh look at what could be done with the start of a new term in January 2021. So the goal is to be out there and build a consensus around the kinds of changes they’re gonna be necessary.

Tom Temin: And just a quick question. Will you have any sorts of public meetings, hearing style, types of events, with maybe employees? Or is that something that department probably wouldn’t countenance?

Tom Warrick: Well, first of all, we know that folks inside the department are aware of this. Indeed, a lot of this originated in in what you might call a water cooler talk over the last several years. And as I say, we’ve been remarkably encouraged that if you talk to almost any DHS employee, he or she will give you 10 really good ideas that could be done to make the department better. Our hope, obviously, is to be able to hold public events to announce the findings of our work in light of COVID-19 making everybody work by tele-conference right now. Our meetings for the moment are going to be virtual, but we’ve learned that the Atlantic Council how to be able to do those pretty effectively. What I think we’re going to see is a release using whatever technology is available to try to get the word out on what we’ve concluded.

Tom Temin: Tom Warrick is senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and leader of the Future of DHS Project. Thanks so much for joining me .

Tom Warrick: You’re most welcome Tom.