Department of Homeland Security: Charting a Path Forward

Report Homeland Security

Department of Homeland Security: Charting a Path Forward

April 3, 2006 10 min read Download Report
The Michael Chertoff

I want to thank Heritage first of all for hosting me. I also want to thank Heritage for allowing us to shamelessly steal their ideas and some of their person­nel in the course of setting up the Department of Homeland Security. Heritage, as you know, has pro­duced a number of very thoughtful reports about the challenges at Homeland Security.

We've adopted a lot of the recommendations. One of the notable ones was the creation of a policy office. I'm pleased to say we've pirated a top person from Heritage to come and help us get that up and running. I think the recommendations have been very thought­ful. And so this is, I think, a very appropriate place for me to discuss the way forward.

It has been a little bit over a year since my coming on board as Secretary, and it certainly has been a very eventful year of facing challenges-from the bomb­ings in London in July of last year, to Hurricane Katri­na, to many of the budget challenges we have, and including other hazards that may come up in the next year, such as the avian flu.

I think we have had an opportunity now to look back over a year and learn some very interesting and important lessons about how Homeland Security can work and should work. Before I get into the sub­stance, though, I want to pay special tribute to Attorney General Ed Meese. I actually served under him at a very low position; I'm sure he didn't know who I was. I was an Assistant U.S. Attorney at the time.

But he provided tremendous leadership to the Justice Department, and he continues to do so to the country as a whole, in terms of bringing very thoughtful suggestions about how we order our­selves in some of the most fundamental ways that government operates; where the proper allocation of responsibility is among the various levels of gov­ernment; what it means to be part of the rule of law; and of course, his very important work in terms of making sure that our courts are functioning as envisioned by the Framers.

This Friday, I'm going to Asia to meet with my counterparts in Japan and China, Hong Kong and Singapore. This is, therefore, a good opportunity for me to talk about three areas which I think will be the critical points of triangulation in terms of our next year of opportunity and challenge at the Department of Homeland Security. One of these is preparedness. This past year, we set up for the first time a director of preparedness with the sole func­tion of creating accountability for the execution of true preparedness for all hazards in the United States.

The second is addressing the issue of illegal migration. Illegal migration is a problem that has been with us for over 20 years. We have addressed it in fits and starts. Clearly, the American public in 2006 has reached the point of demanding serious solutions. And when I say serious solutions, I don't mean cosmetic solutions or feel-good solutions, but I mean solutions that have a real prospect of provid­ing a durable resolution of the challenge of illegal migration-the challenge that it brings to the rule of law, the challenge in terms of our national security concern, but also the challenge it poses to our desire to reconcile our ideals about border protection with the realities of the economic demand that is bring­ing literally hundreds of thousands of migrants into this country every single year.

And the third piece I want to talk about briefly is protecting our critical infrastructure. We've had a lot of discussion in the last several weeks about pro­tecting the ports. My job, however, is not to go from protecting the ports to protecting the railroads to protecting this and protecting that, following along as the media focuses in fits and starts on the partic­ular news of the day. My job is to always make sure that our approach to protecting critical infrastruc­ture is comprehensive, that it looks at all of the threat, not merely the one that happens to be cap­turing public attention at any given moment, and to make sure that it's balanced, to make sure that we do not take steps in the name of protecting our­selves that are so destructive to our way of life and to the foundations of what our society is about that we in effect burn down the village in order to save it.

The essence of Homeland Security is recognizing the tradeoffs and managing the risks. And that means, as I've said before, not pretending that we can guarantee every single person against every bad thing happening at every moment in every place. We can't do that. And if we could do it, it would be at such a horrendous cost, that I think it would transform this country. So I think we need to con­tinue to drive through an intelligent and properly risk-managed approach to critical infrastructure.

Preparing for Disasters

Now, let me turn to each of these topics in turn. We look at the issue of preparedness against the background of one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in American history, which was Hurricane Katrina. Actually, there were three hurricanes in a row: There was Katrina; there was Rita, which came very closely thereafter; and then there was Wilma, which was actually the most powerful of the storms. Taken singularly and certainly taken together, these storms posed a challenge to our pre­paredness and our response unlike we've ever had in our history.

Look at Katrina, which devastated 90,000 square miles-that's roughly the size of Great Britain. Well over a million people had to move out of the area. More people migrated after Katrina than in any other previous mass migration in American history, except for the Dust Bowl, which took place over a period of decades and not over a period of days. When you consider all of those things, you realize that the lessons learned from Katrina are both salient but also a little bit extraordinary, and we have to be careful when we apply those lessons not to confuse the truly super-catastrophe with the ordinary disaster, which is more or less with us on a year-in and year-out basis.

But we can make some generalizations. The essence of preparedness is planning and integration of execution. If you don't have a proper plan, improvisation is not going to give you the answer that you need when you're in the middle of the storm. And from the same standpoint, if you don't integrate all of your organs of power and all of your authorities and all of your capabilities, if you stove­pipe them, you are going to have very much less than the totality of effort which I think the public rightfully expects when we do have a catastrophe.

So we have to look forward and ask ourselves what are the kinds of planning and what are the kinds of integrated capabilities we need to have going forward to be truly prepared. And we do that against the looming date of June 1, which is the onset of hurricane season for this year. It doesn't mean the first hurricane will come on June 1, but it does mean that some time after June 1 we will get a hurricane; we'll get a number of hurricanes. I can't tell you whether they will be stronger than last year's or more frequent than last year's, but I can tell you we will be more prepared than we were last year.

How are we going to do that? Well, first we have to remember the primacy of the role of state and local government in disaster preparedness and response, not just a matter of our federal system under the Constitution, but as a matter of common sense. Ultimately, preparedness and response has to begin in the first instance with your state and local responders. They understand the landscape; they understand the people; they understand the partic­ular challenges when a hazard comes in a particular location. Any effort to try to build a plan or to exe­cute a plan that is not built around state and local capabilities is doomed to failure.

As a consequence of the recognition of this core fact, the President directed last fall-very soon after Katrina, when he spoke in Jackson Square in New Orleans-that we begin an immediate evaluation with our state and local partners of the state of their evacuation and emergency plans. We completed stage one of that on February 10, meeting our deadline. It showed, frankly, a mixed bag. Using the red, yellow, green type of evaluation structure which we often see, there were some greens; there were some yellows; there were also some reds. He told us we had a significant amount of work to do. We are now, as we speak, in the process of working with our state and local partners on getting that work done.

The first place we're looking to do this is in the Gulf. We recognize the Gulf faces an unusual chal­lenge this year because we have only partly rebuilt communities. And so we're going to probably need to pay more attention to what the requirements are and what the capabilities are in the Gulf than in any other place in the country. In the next two weeks, I'm going to direct George Foresman, our Underse­cretary for Preparedness, and David Paulison, our Acting Director of FEMA, to personally go down to the Gulf and to continue the process of planning we have already undertaken by meeting with polit­ical leaders and making sure we are very clear that we must be on a path to being completely prepared for hurricane season by June 1.

We must understand what the plans are; we must understand what the state and local requirements are; we must have a clear, blunt assessment of what their capabilities are. When we get that, we will be prepared to look at what additional capabilities we need to bring to the table. We're going to undertake this planning, not only using the resources of DHS, but the resources of all of the other departments of the federal government including the Department of Defense. But of course, we have to get our own house in order, as well.

So even as we are working with the state and local authorities on their plans and preparedness, we have to begin the process of re-tooling FEMA for the 21st century. What does that mean? Well, it means first of all, we ought to have the ability to manage and track our supplies-food, water, oth­er necessary items-using the same kind of visibil­ity that UPS uses when you send a pair of sneakers to your kid at college and they track the sneakers from the time they get picked up to the time they get delivered. We have to be able to do that for the necessary commodities that come into play any­time there is a disaster. So we are going to be con­tracting this year in anticipation of June 1 for total asset visibility on all of the guards and commodi­ties that we're going to be calling upon in the case of a disaster.

We also have to re-tool our way of dealing with such things as what I call claims management, peo­ple who are victims who need to become regis­tered, who need to know what is available to them under the law by way of emergency care and emer­gency compensation. Last year we were over­whelmed by the sheer, massive numbers of people, literally hundreds of thousands of people seeking aid. This year we have to put into effect and we will put into effect contracts that give us a surge capa­bility to deal with hundreds of thousands of tele­phone calls for people who are displaced if we should have another mass catastrophe.

Third, we have to address some of the issues that arise with our current contracting on debris remov­al. You know, there was a story in the paper today about people complaining that the cost of debris removal when the federal government executes it is very much greater than when local businesses do it. The fact of the matter is, this past year we actually changed our rules to encourage communities to hire local construction firms to do debris remov­al-to actually create an incentive to move them away from the Army Corps of Engineers and into local contractors.

We want to continue to build on that. The Army Corps will be available to do debris removal when communities feel they need to get someone to come in quickly and do the job entirely on its own. But where local communities want to have debris removal done with local firms, which makes eco­nomic sense and which is cheaper, we have con­structed a system that will allow them to do it with as much financial incentive as if they used the Army Corps.

Finally, communications: We're going to be put­ting enhanced communications capabilities into the hands of our responders in the field and state responders in the field to deal with those circum­stances where the basic operability of communica­tions collapses.

Before I leave the area of preparedness, though, I have to turn to that group of people who have the single most important responsibility when it comes to preparedness, and that is individual American citizens. It's been doctrine and been understood by firefighters and other emergency responders for decades that you cannot count on help coming in the first 24 or even 48 hours of a catastrophe. Peo­ple who prepare themselves by having food and water and necessary medicine, radios, and plans so that families know, for example, if they're separated to go to a particular place in order to meet; people who are prepared with that kind of planning do much better if they have to wait 24 or 48 hours than people who don't do that planning.

The fact of the matter is we all face risks, but we all as individual citizens have it in our power to deal with those risks because we can prepare our­selves. There are a lot of tools available; there are tools on the Web; there are Web sites that DHS has, that HHS and other government agencies have that will tell people what they need to know to do the preparation. But the real power and determination can only be supplied by the individual citizen and by individual families.

And I would say that taking the steps to prepare yourself as an American citizen is not only a way of empowering yourself but it is discharging a civic responsibility, because those who are able-bodied and fail to prepare distract the responders from helping those who are not able to help themselves and therefore are simply unable to prepare. So I think we all owe it to each other to do the kind of preparation that allows responders to focus on those most in need.


The Michael Chertoff