When most people think of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the mind conjures images of border patrolmen on horseback along the American southwest border or Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners at the airport, or maybe FEMA recovery officials helping an area recover after a natural disaster.  Seldom do people think of international affairs or diplomacy when it comes to homeland security, but in order to keep us safe at home, America should mitigate threats before they reach our shores.

America’s first line of defense should involve foreign partners to take advantage of all opportunities to grow our economy and secure our methods of moving people and goods safely and legally around the globe.  And these partnerships should be just that—cooperative collaborations that respect international norms and agreements and strengthen not only American security but seek ways to mutually strengthen our allies’ borders, interiors and economies.

Aviation and Border Security

Our airports and land border crossings should be the last line of defense to secure our borders, not the first.  We should not be solely reliant on our own aviation and border security measures when we can leverage our overseas partners’ efforts to secure their nodes in the global flow of people and goods — efforts with comparable objectives and a similar level of commitment.  An inward-looking “Fortress America” approach to aviation and border security simply will not work. 

This can perhaps best be evidenced through the example of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—more commonly known as the “Underwear Bomber.”  On Christmas Day in 2009, Abdulmutallab attempted to blow himself up inside an airplane.  The flight originated in Amsterdam and Abdulmutallab aimed to detonate the nonmetallic explosives in his underwear as the plane descended to its destination, Detroit.  Luckily his device malfunctioned so no real damage was done to the plane or other passengers, but it taught U.S. authorities an important lesson.  Abdulmutallab’s name was selected by Customs and Border Protection for further scrutiny upon his arrival, likely due to beginning his travel that day in a third country that was not on his itinerary and paying for his flight in cash in the days before his departure.

Obviously intercepting him at his American destination would have been too late, so DHS began working with foreign partners whose airports were last points of departure to the U.S. to strengthen their airport security, screening of passengers and cargo and advance risk-based vetting of travelers.  This effectively pushed the American border out and further strengthened the travel system for all parties.  Without this sort of diplomacy and international cooperation, this vulnerability could not be mitigated and all air travelers to say nothing of our economy would be less safe.


As the global economy becomes more and more intertwined, the United States will have to facilitate the ever-increasing flow of goods and people moving across its borders in order to maintain its position of global economic leadership.  This increase in cross-border flow should not be stemmed, instead it should be harnessed, understood, and used to strengthen our defenses.

For example, while the interconnected nature of the world brings countless opportunities to millions, it also means that crime is increasingly transnational.  Groups like Hizballah, Brother’s Circle, the Sinaloa Cartel and MS-13 don’t seem to confine their activities to a single nation state, which means that the main investigatory arms of DHS (Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE, the Coast Guard, and the Secret Service) efforts’ to prevent transnational crime and bring perpetrators to justice can’t stop at the U.S. border. These agencies need both robust information sharing agreements that respect the rule of law and human rights with partners and mutual trust that can manifest itself in programs like joint operations or vetted units, such as ICE’s Transnational Criminal Investigative Units.

The case of the Lebanese Canadian Bank is an instructive example of how international relationships can be key to Homeland Security.  This bank, most of whose branches were in Lebanon, was found by the DEA, Treasury Department and others, to have funded Hizballah and laundered money for drug traffickers.  This case centered on a vast trade-based money laundering scheme across five continents that funded a variety of illegal activities benefiting at least one designated terrorist organization and multiple criminal enterprises, some solely for monetary profit and some with political ends. This case was investigated vigorously by multiple Federal law enforcement organizations.   And there were legal and policy outcomes that leveraged the capabilities of partner law enforcement agencies in the other affected countries.

Training and Capacity Building

One effective deterrent to these international criminal or terrorist organizations is ensuring that in places where terrorist or criminal organizations might thrive or find haven, the local law enforcement organizations, border security agencies and the judiciary have the tools and capacity to enforce the rule of law and skills to ensure the security of their own interiors.  American officials can not turn their backs and leaveing partners to fend for themselves. The United States has highly-skilled experts that can train others and share best practices in areas that range from disaster recovery and the rule of law to cyber security and counter-narcotics, all in efforts to ensure that the infrastructures that guarantee the timely flow of goods and people across borders remains secure and resilient.  This is as applicable in developed countries as it is with our less developed partners.

Information Sharing

While it is not always thought of as a key element to homeland security, much less a pillar of international relationships, information sharing is an essential cog in the gears of our homeland security apparatus.  Hoarding information has shown time and again to be a recipe for failure.  Information sharing needs to (and does) extend well beyond agreements like intelligence sharing relationships to include programs such as those that share advance information on passengers intending to travel to the United States from foreign countries. Others include Automated Indicatorformation Sharing programs that share information on cybersecurity threats.

One example of this is ICE’s Operation Angel Watch.  Angel Watch began in 2007 in ICE’s Cyber Crime Center and is operated jointly with the Marshals Service and Customs and Border Protection.  The program identifies individuals who have registered as sex offenders against children and intend to travel overseas with the potential purpose of committing further crimes against children.  ICE notifies the destination law enforcement partners of the intending traveler’s arrival date and let them pursue anything within their country’s legal authorities up to and including denial of entry to the country.  Programs like this export more than just American law enforcement tools—they also export American notions of human rights and civil liberties and ensure a seat at the table to set the global agenda.

International Engagement is often shown to be the province of diplomats sipping cocktails at stuffy parties in foreign capitals but forging these critical relationships can unlock the key to keeping our nation safe.  Our borders should be the last line of defense, not the first, and possibly the only way we can truly accomplish that is to embrace the assistance of others while sharing American practices, to collectively raise the bar across the globe.

Image: CBP