Heritage Foundation: Mind the Homeland Security Gap

As agencies go, the Department of Homeland Security is still a toddler. Less than half a decade old, it has served under only one administration.

It’s the only federal agency never to have gone through a presidential transition.

That will change next January. And that worries members of the House Homeland Security Committee, who suspect terrorists might not take a time-out while the Bush team moves out of DHS offices and the next president’s appointees wind through their Senate nomination hearings and start settling in.

Given the department’s shaky reputation for getting its act together, these concerns certainly are understandable. And Congress already has held subcommittee hearings to make sure DHS is doing all it should to assure a smooth and disciplined transition.

But DHS isn’t the only place where homeland security transitions are critical. What happens in White House policy shops is just as important.

Take the Homeland Security Council, for instance. It’s responsible for coordinating interagency policy for responding to national and international emergencies — everything from hurricane recovery to dealing with pandemic diseases. Virtually all council staff are political appointees. They’ll be clearing out their desks while the new president is being sworn in.

When the next president settles down in the Oval Office, one of the first decisions he or she will face is whether to reconstitute the Homeland Security Council as a separate entity. The right answer is probably no.

There was some rationale for organizing the White House homeland security shop this way in the infancy of the operation. But those days are long past. Indeed, at times the council has acted as if its mission is to oversee the Homeland Security Department. It isn’t. Running the department is the DHS secretary’s job. Meddling from the Council is inappropriate and unhelpful.

The Council’s job is to coordinate interagency policy — not to supervise the agencies involved in executing policy. Given that reality, it makes little sense to "carve out" homeland security policy from national security policy-making.

Whatever the challenge — be it securing the borders or tracking down terrorists — virtually every homeland security mission has an international dimension. Even purely domestic disasters have an international component.

After Katrina, for example, many countries called to offer aid. Much of the diplomacy on that matter got botched, resulting in little international help and even less goodwill.

The next administration’s transition team would do well to consider merging the two security councils — homeland and national — into one. This needn’t be disruptive. Indeed, many components of the two council staffs, such as the public and legal affairs and counterterrorism sections, already are integrated.

Combining the councils into one staff makes sense. It would acknowledge that splitting responsibility for dealing with transnational threats between two councils doesn’t give us twice the security, it just creates gaps that terrorists might exploit.

No matter what organizational structure the new president pursues, the next White House staff must learn one crucial lesson in preparing for crises: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not a command post.

On television and in the movies, the president commands everything. Things happen immediately when someone barks an order over an Oval Office phone. But in the real world, if we have to wait for someone in the White House to make decisions before we start saving lives or stopping terrorists, then many of us are going to die.

In reality, the council staffs are too small and too remote to command operational activities. They need to stick to their job of keeping the president informed and advising the administration in making future policy choices.

January ’09 may seem a long way off, but the clock is ticking. The candidates need to start thinking now about more than how to win an election. They need to think about how they are going to run the country.

There is no pre-season for presidential leadership. History starts keeping score as soon as the swearing-in ceremony is complete.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.