Another Bureaucratic Paperweight

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has published its first Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR) [.pdf]. The QHSR – patterned after the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) – was mandated by Congress and directed the secretary of DHS to conduct "a comprehensive examination of the homeland security strategy of the nation, including recommendations regarding the long-term strategy and priorities of the nation for homeland security and guidance on the programs, assets, capabilities, budget, policies, and authorities of the Department." With a new administration and a new secretary of DHS (former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano), this QHSR was an opportunity to hit control-alt-delete and refocus the homeland security enterprise on the sole reason DHS was created: terrorism.

In that respect, the QHSR at least makes the first of five homeland security missions "preventing terrorism and enhancing security" and lists al-Qaeda as a threat. But also listed as a threat is:

"Illicit trafficking and related transnational crime, which can undermine effective governance and security, corrupt strategically vital markets, slow economic growth, and destabilize weaker states. Transnational crime and trafficking facilitate the movement of narcotics, people, funds, arms, and other support to hostile actors, including terrorist networks. Importantly for the American homeland, the dramatic detrimental effect of illegal trafficking and transnational criminal organizations is apparent in societies within the Western Hemisphere."

The QHSR also states that America’s national interests are also threatened by these global challenges and long-term trends:

  • Economic and financial instability
  • Dependence on fossil fuel and the threat of global climate change
  • Nations unwilling to abide by international norms
  • Sophisticated and broadly available technology
  • Other drivers of illicit, dangerous, or uncontrolled movement of people and goods

And in a holdover from the Bush administration, the third homeland security mission is "enforcing and administering our immigration laws."

As is typical of bureaucratic behavior, DHS continues to expand its reach rather than focusing on doing what it’s supposed to do really well. However, immigration, illegal trafficking, and transnational crimes are not homeland security threats per se. More correctly, each of them includes a homeland security component – that is, illegal immigrants are not necessarily a terrorist threat, but those conducting homeland security need to recognize that terrorists might be able to use illegal border crossings to gain entry into the United States. Making this important distinction becomes an argument for divesting DHS of some of its operating components. It is also an argument for homeland security at the federal level being more about policy and coordination rather than commanding resources to conduct actual operations.

The QHSR was also an opportunity to put the threat of terrorism in some much needed perspective. Although not as dire as the Bush administration, in the wake of the thwarted Christmas underwear bomber, President Obama declared, "We are at war against al-Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again." The reality is – according to John Mueller, holder of the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State University and author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them – the worldwide chances of being killed by international terrorism over a lifetime are 1 in 80,000, or about the same as being killed by a comet or asteroid over a lifetime [PowerPoint]. That doesn’t mean that the threat of terrorism should be written down to zero, but the killed-by-a-comet-or-asteroid standard would make risk an explicit criterion for decision-making and remove emotionalism from the equation – recognizing that every dire pronouncement and threat du jour is not a certainty that requires a response and an investment of millions of dollars.

The one truly bright spot in the QHSR is making "ensuring resilience to disasters" a homeland security mission. Previously, too much of homeland security was focused on trying to prevent and protect against every conceivable terrorist attack, which is a quixotic quest, since there are myriad potential attack scenarios and nearly infinite target vulnerabilities. Instead, the QHSR recognizes:

"Despite ongoing vigilance and efforts to protect this country and its citizens, major accidents and disasters, as well as deliberate attacks, will occur. The challenge is to build the capacity of American society to be resilient in the face of disruptions, disasters, and other crises. Our vision is a nation that understands the hazards and risks we face; is prepared for disasters; can withstand the disruptions disasters may cause; can sustain social trust, economic, and other functions under adverse conditions; can manage itself effectively during a crisis; can recover quickly and effectively; and can adapt to conditions that have changed as a result of the event."

Finally, although foreign policy is outside the bounds of DHS’ mission, the QHSR was an important opportunity to recognize that the terrorist threat to America is motivated in large part by U.S. foreign policy – in particular, military intervention (even so-called humanitarian intervention) and occupation abroad. Indeed, almost every act of terrorism against Americans has been in retaliation for U.S. interventionist policy rather than because of innate hatred. As such, no matter how much time, money, and effort is spent on homeland security, and no matter how well government is organized to tackle the task, it will be wasted if U.S. foreign policy does not change, because the pool of potential terrorists will grow and America will continue to be a target.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.