Why the U.S. Needs a Homeland Security Strategy

The last time the U.S. government published a National Homeland Security Strategy, Osama bin Laden was still alive, Twitter was barely a year old, and only one Transformers movie had made it to theaters. Needless to say, the world today is a very different place than it was in 2007, and an updated strategy is overdue. With the multitude of threats we read about in the news or hear about from our elected officials and public servants, the American public needs to know the changes and advances that have been made and the new approaches developed to protect them. Drafting a strategy document would give the government an opportunity to tackle these important problems with clear objectives and supportive partners.

The White House has not published a National Strategy for Homeland Security since the administration of President George W. Bush. While a national strategy is not congressionally mandated, Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson, who both served as secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama, each published a department-level strategic document, labeled the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review or QHSR. These were important documents that enumerated the threats America faced and how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intended to mitigate them. They were forward-looking roadmaps that were informed by past events. More importantly, for a department whose mandates are as wide-ranging as DHS’s, the QHSR defined the department’s mission areas, goals and objectives for the next four years.

While the QHSR took important steps to better position DHS to achieve its mission, it was not a whole-of-government national strategy. Not only has DHS matured and evolved since 2007, but so have other agencies who play important roles in securing our homeland. While the QHSRs released by Napolitano and Johnson set forth a vision for DHS, a national strategy would include important objectives and policy prescriptions for departments and agencies with equities in mission areas like cybersecurity, human trafficking, money laundering and migrant flows. The two QHSRs outlined some of this work, but a national strategy would be broader in scope and should involve the agencies who collaborate with and support DHS’s important work – like Treasury, State, Justice and Commerce.

While it may be apparent to some, it is important to note how DHS has grown and matured over the past 10 years. It started new programs like the Joint Task Forces–operational coordination elements that synchronize DHS components in discrete geographic or functional areas; Customs and Border Protection’s Preclearance program to streamline the entry of low risk travelers into the United States from international airports and FEMA’s efforts to pre-stage disaster relief resources to speed recovery and relief efforts. These advances all took advantage of new technologies, to say nothing of the relationships DHS built with other government departments and agencies, as well as foreign partners across the globe. These new programs have significantly increased our security and resilience at home by synchronizing efforts across the department, using new technologies and finding important operational efficients.. For example, better functional integration across DHS has allowed each operational element to better execute in its area of expertise—which for DHS means everything from immigration enforcement to cybersecurity to disaster planning and relief. Plus, engaging foreign partners helps extend the layers of security further away from our physical border and empowers our partners to better protect their own elements of the broader security ecosystem.

These broader policy, programmatic and operational developments merit an update to the U.S. strategy in order to ensure that the elements of the government are all working together and to show that as a government, the American people and their infrastructure are prepared for and resilient to any sort of incident, man-made or otherwise.

But in crafting a strategy document, it’s important to remember that tactics alone are not a strategy. A strategy is not simply a pronouncement of policies or programs or initiatives that might be lumped under a common heading and it certainly isn’t a bumper sticker slogan. A strategy is a vision of what can be accomplished and the tools necessary to achieve those goals. A strategy needs coordination among partners and a comprehensive vision for where homeland security is now, where it is headed, and the approach the president and executive branch propose to get there.

A national strategy for homeland security should also be undertaken in a much different manner than the way those charged with national defense and diplomacy craft their strategy documents. These areas are very much top-down disciplines, where command and control are not just the norm, but are necessary. Homeland Security, though, relies much more on state, local, tribal and territorial officials to be effective, to say nothing of the American public and the private sector. Therefore, a national strategy for homeland security needs to build consensus with partners and speak to an American public that must buy into it. The collaboration between DHS and its partenrs merits a good portion of attention in the strategy and how it is built. It must be a bottom-up effort that outlines critical mission spaces and enables partner agencies across the federal government and in states and localities to build upon that vision.

While the development of a National Homeland Security Strategy should be different than a National Defense Strategy, some parallels can be drawn in terms of structure and desired outcomes. A National Homeland Security Strategy would outline the administrations priorities and signal to the partners outlined above where DHS might make investments in personnel or technology. It also might highlight emerging threats the department identifies which is particularly important in rapidly evolving areas like cybersecurity. National Defense or Counterterrorism strategies can be looked at as blueprints in part by National Security Council (NSC) staffers who would draft the strategy.

The last QHSR identified five major mission areas: 1) preventing terrorism, 2) securing our borders, 3) enforcing immigration laws, 4) securing cyberspace and 5) strengthening national resilience. While a National Strategy for Homeland Security would encompass more than just these DHS mission areas, they are a useful departure point for updating a strategy as they largely align with the threats that affect the homeland. While these domains all fall under the purview of DHS, they overlap with various parts of other federal agency mission spaces in addition to the responsibilities of state, local, tribal and territorial governments. If the NSC were to lead a strategy development process that engaged the right partners around these or similar mission areas, along with interagency subject matter experts and other security experts, they could be better positioned to chart a path forward. The absence of this kind of strategy development may leave the United States operating one-step behind our adversaries or out of sync with our partners.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, or opinion of the author’s employer, associates, clients, or other entities or individual associated with the author.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Matthew Wein

Former Policy Advisor to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistant Secretary of Policy, Former Advisor to the DHS Director of Operations Coordination on Counterterrorism and Intelligence Issues