For most of the past year, whenever someone asked me how I was doing, my standard answer was, “I am perplexed.” I was not angry about what was going on in Washington, DC, nor was I happy about it either; the best word I could come up with was “perplexed.”
To be sure, any time there is a change in the White House, or in majority control of the House or Senate, there is always a time of uncertainty and more than a few missteps. That has been true no matter which political party displaces the other. The current generation may crave instant gratification, but political systems are not designed for efficient transitions or immediate results. The Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government depend upon people – real human beings – to assume responsibility and learn how to lead the team they have been given, and by any account, that takes some time.
Even with that contextual understanding, however, and without making any partisan political comments, I am still perplexed by the long list of things in the homeland security arena that remain undone as we begin the second full year of the new Administration. Here is a partial list.
No Confirmed Leader at CBP or ICE
Immigration was one of Donald Trump’s priority subjects during the 2016 presidential campaign, and in his first year in office, his administration has attempted a number of things to affect changes the president believes to be necessary (e.g., an enhanced travel ban, extreme vetting of immigrants, limits on chain migration, strict enforcement of immigration statutes, funding for and construction of physical walls along the southwest border, etc.). Almost ALL of these activities were done through Presidential Directives, Executive Orders and Administrative Actions.
While there are a lot of things about the Trump Administration that are unconventional (perhaps intentionally so), leaving the two agencies responsible for illegal immigration detection and enforcement with unconfirmed leadership stretches the word “unconventional” in ways that perplex me. There is the easy temptation to blame the Presidential Personnel Office or some faction on Capitol Hill, but the simple truth is that pointing fingers at someone, anyone, does not change the result – or should I say, lack of it.
Getting a nominee confirmed is not a simple task, especially in as divisive a political environment as we have seen in quite a long time. But the Trump Administration has succeeded in getting some of its DHS nominees confirmed, garnering some Democratic support to go along with the slim Republican majority. The confirmations of Dave Pekoske to head TSA, Brock Long and Dan Kaniewski at FEMA, and Francis Cisna at USCIS are but a few examples of the DHS component agency leaders who made it through the confirmation process.
Yet, the President made immigration a top priority. I am baffled by the administration’s inability to secure the nominations of Kevin McAleenan at CBP and Tom Homan at ICE in a timely manner in 2017, much less having to start over (with McAleenan) in January 2018 because his nomination was not acted on by the Senate in the just-concluded congressional term. As of this writing, Tom Homan’s nomination has not even had committee consideration. McAleenan at least has made it through committee but has not yet come up for a vote on the Senate floor. These two positions should have been acted on long before December ended IF the White House personnel and legislative affairs organizations believed that it was a top priority for President Trump – but from all outside appearances, precious little political capital was expended on the Hill to get McAleenan and Homan confirmed.
While both should have been confirmed long ago, because I know McAleenan better, I am not objective about his nomination. Frankly, there is no one more deserving of confirmation than Kevin McAleenan. He is the ideal role model for what a federal employee should be – conscientious, accountable, responsible, a good steward of taxpayer investments, and he genuinely cares about CBP employees (and their families). This is not to take away from the admirable qualities of anyone else, because it isn’t fair to engage in comparison contests at this level. By all accounts, McAleenan is more than qualified to manage CBP, and why the Senate has not yet had an opportunity to vote on his nomination is something that will continue to perplex me in the coming weeks.
Effective Congressional DHS Oversight is Still Unresolved
For more than a decade, I have been part of a chorus of voices asking why congressional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must be apportioned among 100+ committees, sub-committees and other congressional entities. It makes no sense to me that the sole remaining recommendation of the 9-11 Commission has been ignored for as long as it has. One would have thought that an issue (i.e., consolidation of DHS oversight) with the strong backing of the Heritage Foundation would have made it into a Republican-led Congress’ agenda in 2017, if not before. Alas, that has not been the case. In spite of the efficiency and effectiveness arguments Heritage scholars Jim Carafano and David Inserra have made numerous times, congressional leadership (can we really call them “leaders?”) have not even made nano-steps toward addressing the issue – and that perplexes me.
House Homeland Security Committee Chair Mike McCaul started out this past congressional session with what seemed to be a major concession from other committees with a jurisdictional claim over DHS – the prospect of joint action, joint committee hearings and deference on some DHS reauthorization legislation. In practice, the agreement McCaul reached has had limited success. There is much more that can be done on the House side to resolve this issue, but at least McCaul has made the effort to do so. The same cannot be said about the Senate.
Until very recently, Senator Ron Johnson gave the appearance that he is largely disinterested in legislation affecting DHS. He has dutifully shepherded through almost all of the nominations sent to his committee from the White House, but DHS reauthorization, NPPD reorganization and cybersecurity legislation out of his Senate committee has been all but non-existent, which perplexes me. Given the lower number of committees in the Senate, traditionally overlapping and separate jurisdiction over DHS functions has not created a big problem, but as the stalled nomination of CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan shows, having the Senate Finance Committee have the final say on the Customs Commissioner is more than an inconvenience – it perpetuates the outdated belief that CBP’s primary mission is collecting customs duties and handling trade issues. While that is still an important part of what CBP does, in the Trump Administration, the emphasis has been on addressing illegal immigration, and Senate Finance Committee members injected unnecessary delay in making judgments on McAleenan’s nomination.
Perhaps Senator Johnson (or others) will take a different approach to addressing DHS and congressional structures when the committee holds a DHS “roundtable” discussion in the coming days. Perhaps things will change. Yet, until such time, DHS will suffer under the burden of disjointed, contradictory and confusing congressional micro-meddling.
We Are Not Prepared for a Serious Bio-Related Event
In his talk at the Aspen Security Summit this past July, White House Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert highlighted the need to complete and then implement a Comprehensive National BioDefense Strategy. Bossert’ clear articulation of the global impacts of a serious biological event, whether naturally occurring (think Ebola) or man-made (think synthetic biology in the hands of terrorists), should have received more attention than it did at the time.
Admiral Tim Ziemer and Andrea Hall have led the White House effort, and in their testimony before the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense in early November, they did not mince any words about the impact a national bio-related event would have. I came away from that meeting with the unmistakable belief that a bio event would have a greater impact on the U.S. economy than almost any other type of incident/attack. Much like a cyberattack, a bioattack is difficult to contain geographically. As horrible as an attack using explosives, vehicles or other kinetic platforms might be on a particular venue, the damage is generally limited to a local area. This contrasts with a cyber or bioattack, where the impact can be nationwide or even worldwide in scope.
Biosecurity IS a national security issue, but for reasons that perplex me, neither Congress nor an overwhelming majority of the American people seem to believe that it is a “real” problem. This “September 10th mentality” is beyond just mere ignorance – it is dangerous thinking to believe that a bioattack is too hard for someone to carry out. Technological advances have made equipment smaller, portable and affordable, and genomic research has added to the list of threats we face, even while acknowledging that the technology can also be used to help us find solutions quicker than ever.
The (bipartisan) Blue Ribbon Panel on Biodefense has been in the forefront of sounding the alarm about America being unprepared for an inevitable bio incident, but for all the warnings they have made, Capitol Hill has all but ignored their admonitions. The witnesses before the Panel are not modern-day Cassandras. Yet, they seem to be treated in that manner by political policymakers in both parties and by members of the general public who are affected by their actions.
It is my hope that the implementation of the soon-to-be-released National Biodefense Strategy will be a topic of discussion across the nation (e.g., at Civic Clubs, churches, schools and on talk radio). The economic consequences to our country are far too high for us to continue to treating bio threats as a third-tier problem. In this and many other areas, FEMA Administrator Brock Long is exactly right. We don’t have a culture of resiliency in this country. That we aren’t doing more to be prepared and then develop a resilient culture perplexes me greatly.
Does DHS Really Need a Science & Technology Directorate?
For those of us who spend a lot of professional time working with people at the DHS Science & Technology Directorate (S&T), this may seem like an impertinent question. But to a vast majority of people who are outside of the day-to-day interactions, the question is being taken seriously and rumors are very strong that S&T is in for a major, involuntary transformation. The effort to scale back S&T is rumored to be led by OMB with the support of DHS headquarters leadership. The first inkling on whether the rumors are true, or just fear-driven gossip, will likely come when the White House releases its proposed FY19 budget in the next few days.
Of course, Congress has yet to enact a FY18 federal budget and the prospects for a full-year FY18 budget are problematic, at best. So the water-cooler talk around Vermont Avenue considers the wholesale elimination of significant parts of S&T a “low probability, high consequence” event, which is rather ironic since, in many cases, this is exactly the kind of problem that S&T was intended to address.
One of the biggest problems S&T has had since it was created by Congress in 2002 is that it has a hard time getting homeland security customers and stakeholders to buy into its mission. At first, that was largely a communications problem. Later, the problem got worse as S&T leadership searched for ways to be more relevant to the “homeland security enterprise,” as it has come to be called. It became a self-fulfilling prophesy in reverse. The more S&T tried to prove its relevance, the less DHS components seemed to believe it. And the more S&T talked about improving its processes to listen more and develop technologies to help first responders, law enforcement and DHS component agencies, the lack of “show and tell” deliverables led to a whisper campaign that S&T had become a playground for scientific experimentation, not deployable technology. It does not matter that these beliefs were not true; they were believable and became more so as S&T didn’t defend itself (or was prevented from doing so).
Some observers have suggested that S&T is not unlike other science-based organizations, which often find themselves grasping for acceptance from a larger audience, a situation made more difficult as budgets are reduced and mission clarity is elusive. Yet, somehow NASA has consistently landed at the top of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, and it must deal with virtually identical issues in this organization. That has always perplexed me.
If S&T has not benchmarked NASA best practices and its customer engagement activities, it is missing a golden opportunity to make the case for redemption from destruction. DHS S&T is not DARPA, nor should it try to be. It should not be structured like the Department of Energy Office of Science, nor should it model its activities after the Intelligence Community’s IARPA unit. Those offices have a very different culture than S&T.
If S&T cannot make the case for its continuation (a situation made much more difficult without a nominated or confirmed Under Secretary by the way), then S&T is going to be a very different organization that it has been these past 15 years. S&T’s current leader and permanent Deputy Under Secretary Bill Bryan is forging ahead to make some structural changes irrespective of the budget morass. He has already held a number of meetings with S&T employees to get their input before any internal changes are made. This approach is a refreshing change, to be sure, because it fits within his “be more transparent and inclusive” management philosophy. I am hopeful Mr. Bryan will ask for greater private sector input before any significant changes occur.
The bigger question, however, is what S&T should become, if it must change. If not addressed soon, it should be addressed in the next Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR), which is scheduled for release later this year. Now THAT should be an interesting document!
These are but a few of the issues that baffle me as we head into the second month of 2018 and the second year of the Trump Administration. I welcome reader feedback on whether you have these and other issues on your list of perplexities. I hope a lively and respectful discussion will ensue.