December 1, 2014 by David Olive

Twelve years ago last week, President Bush signed the act creating the Department of Homeland Security. It came into formal existence on March 1, 2003.

Six years ago last week, a group of terrorists launched a multi-day attack in Mumbai, India, striking at the very heart of the “new” India and sending shock waves across the globe as it expanded terrorism tactics beyond fanatical religious-based motivations.

And in years to come, we will likely remember this past week as the time when Ferguson, Missouri, erupted into pockets of violence as a grand jury chose not to indict a white law enforcement officer who shot a young black man. Might Ferguson enter the public lexicon in the same larger-than-reality manner as “9-11,” “Columbine” and “Kent State?”

Oh, did I also mention this was Thanksgiving week?

Anniversaries are more than just days to remember what happened. They are also days to reflect on broader issues – things like the lessons we have learned from the initial experience, how those lessons have been applied, and what actions remain to implement those lessons. There are days to give thanks and be joyful. And there are days to reflect on the somber events that brought sadness and grief.

Broader issue reflection is particularly appropriate with homeland security issues where the threat adapts on a daily (if not hourly) basis, and addressing the threat from yesterday may not be the major problem we face tomorrow. There are times we get so caught up in the daily minutiae that we occasionally lose sight of the reasons we are engaged in that particular action.

One of the biggest challenges we face today is thinking that the problems of today are the same ones we faced when the triggering event occurred. Unfortunately, in a political town like Washington, DC, having people who adapt their thinking or who are willing to take risks is not always viewed as a positive trait – but it is a very necessary one if we are to meet the challenges of the hour. Changing principles is something that is difficult, but changing tactics should not be so hard, assuming, of course, that the changes are to address current matters as they “are” rather than as they “were.”

These thoughts have been rattling around in my brain this past week as we learned of changes coming at the Department of Homeland Security flowing from President Obama’s Executive Action on immigration. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson made public a series of memoranda aligning two DHS efforts along their functional purposes rather than through the sacred “rice bowls” of the component where the individuals are employed. The Unity of Effort memo that started Johnson’s tenure at DHS is finally getting some application in the field – and time will tell if it is the right approach. For now, because of the manner and timing in which President Obama made his announcement, Republicans will likely challenge every move, motive and changed mission that DHS makes.

Which brings us to Congress and what we should expect in the coming days and months. While a cynic would say “not much,” I am an optimist and believe that there will be a concerted effort in early 2015, at least in the House, to pass a DHS reauthorization bill that will update the authorities given to the Department to meet the mission of today and in the future. There will be changes from the way DHS was originally set up – which is as it should be. A new reauthorization bill should not be a pathway for Congress to micro-manage homeland security operations. With the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week, we saw what happens when policy makers (in his case, at the White House) attempt to micro-manage operational matters. It doesn’t work and inevitably leads to dysfunction. (Whether the President should nominate DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to become the next DoD Secretary was very ably covered by our friend Paul Rosensweig last week. His blog is well worth reading, and his logic on why Johnson should not be named is very persuasive.)

There is a lot a DHS reauthorization should cover – and not the least of the items on that list are the restructuring of the DHS Policy shop; the realignment and re-empowerment of the Private Sector Office; breaking the Office of Health Affairs apart and putting the BioWatch program in NPPD, the health and bio research in S&T, and the employee health and welfare under the Chief Human Capital Officer; and, admittedly controversial, the folding of the CBP Office of Air and Marine into the US Coast Guard so as to eliminate costly mission overlaps and largely duplicative programs. A good step forward would also include the enactment of the DHS Acquisition Accountability and Efficiency Act (HR 4228), which passed the House of Representatives last April but was never taken up by the Senate.

And then there is cyber.

Chairman McCaul said last summer in his talk at the Aspen National Security Forum that if his cyber legislation did not get enacted before the end of the current session of Congress, that it would be the centerpiece of his DHS reauthorization bill in the new year. While there were many additional legislative proposals dealing with cyber information sharing, liability protection and civil rights/civil liberties assurances this past year, none were enacted into law. 2015 is the year that sensible cyber legislation should clear both houses of Congress, and it should be at the top of the early congressional legislative agenda. We do not need another anniversary of the Edward Snowden leaks to come and go before Congress passes meaningful cyber reform legislation.

As we enter the final month of 2014, it is indeed a good time to reflect on what has occurred since the Department of Homeland Security was created in November 2002. This time next year, DHS will become a teenager. Now there’s a thought worth some serious pondering.