September 7, 2006 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Thinking smarter -- it's Job 1

After every terrorist scare, Congress wants to help -- usually by throwing money at the problem. Whatever the "danger du jour" happens to be (airplane plots, subway bombings, hurricanes, leaky borders), lawmakers' first inclination is to spend.

But wars -- particularly long wars -- aren't won by simply writing checks. The first thing to do in a war is think. Long wars are won by sound strategies: understanding the enemy, understanding yourself and crafting the right response.

If members of Congress really want to help the Department of Homeland Security do its job well, there's something they can do: They can help the department "think smarter." When Congress created DHS in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, it spent a lot of time arguing about which agencies to include and wasted countless hours debating civil service rules, such as which pension plans DHS employees could join.

What Congress spent almost no time worrying about was how this vast army of Coast Guard cutters, border agents, airport screeners, immigration and custom investigators, and emergency mangers would be commanded. The result was a bulky bureaucracy with a very small head that didn't even have an office to coordinate policies, planning and strategy. This was a predictable problem. When the United States geared up to fight the new and unprecedented challenges of the Cold War, neither the newly established Pentagon nor the State Department had anything worthy of being called a real policy or strategy office. Both had to create them. The State Department's newly established Policy Planning Office was run by George Kennan, father of the strategy of containment that guided U.S. action throughout the long stand-off with the Soviet Union.

Soon after Michael Chertoff took over as the head of the DHS, he also created a policy directorate. But more than a year later, and five years after 9-11, Congress still hasn't allocated the resources that DHS needs to get the job done.

Building the capacity to think about how to fight and win the long war isn't as attractive to politicians as bringing back millions of dollars of homeland security grants to their districts. And it's less appealing than granting billions in contracts for fancy screening technologies and razor-wire fences on the southern border. But it would do a heck of a lot more to make Americans safer.

The idea behind Chertoff's policy directorate was simple enough: Give Homeland Security a core group of people, reasonably insulated from the day-to-day operations of the department, to focus on determining the right risks to confront and the right priorities to address. This group also would make sure that all the disparate parts of the department were supporting a common cause and working well with other parts of the government and friends and allies around the world. Unfortunately, reality has not matched rhetoric thus far.

Although an earnest and hard-working policy directorate has been stood up and ably led, that isn't good enough. The policy shop remains desperately understaffed (with about half as many employees as it needs to be effective), and the leader is a mere "assistant secretary" instead of the higher and more appropriate "undersecretary" -- a title given to similar positions in the Departments of Defense and State. The net result is that the directorate is a lawn mower engine trying to drive an SUV. Before anyone decides to dramatically increase spending on various technologies or shift dollars from one pet program to another, the first and most effective step that should be taken is to beef up the policy shop. The cost of adding a few dozen employees will inevitably yield highly valuable dividends, and at the same time will prove to be far less costly than immediately pouring tens of millions of dollars into any given research-and-development rabbit hole.

Having a staff robust enough to look beyond its in-box is especially important.

Today, DHS suffers too much from an all-hands-on-deck approach, marshalling everybody to deal with every crisis. Stung by Hurricane Katrina, for example, the department spent more time during the last year preparing for the next hurricane season than it did readying for the next terrorist attack. That is ultimately counterproductive because it fails to allow any one unit in DHS to maintain a long-term vision of future challenges.

Lurching from crisis to crisis isn't the best way to protect the nation. And it ignores what should be a fundamental part of the Department of Homeland Security's mission: getting the terrorists before they get us.


James Jay Carafano is senior fellow for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation and author of "G.I. Ingenuity." Brian Finch is a lawyer specializing in homeland security with Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin & Oshinsky.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Distributed nationally on the McClatchy Tribune wire