Domestic security will challenge next president

States are struggling to pay for security measures and want more help from the federal government.Andy Kuno / REUTERS
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The post-election landscape for homeland security promises to be a rocky one regardless of who wins in November. And the biggest headaches facing the next president in this area could well involve bureaucracy, not terrorism.

Whether President Bush or Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry ends up in the White House, they will find a daunting homeland security to-do list in their in-box.

Items likely to be on the list include: Installing new personnel in key positions; getting along better with a cantankerous Congress and grumbling state and local officials straining to pay for security measures ordered by the federal government; and reaching a better understanding with a private sector reluctant to comply with government requests for confidential
assessments of company vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks.

And then there’s the vision thing. The Department of Homeland Security is barely more than 2 years old, houses 22 former government agencies and 180,000 employees and still has trouble getting all its computers to talk to one another, let alone oversee border-to-border security policies.

“One of the challenges that faces either administration is to develop a strategy for homeland security over the longer term,” said Arthur Hulnick, associate professor at Boston University and a former CIA analyst.  “That would be different for a Kerry administration because the Kerry people would come in under the assumption that they would have eight years, or they’d like to have eight years, so they might think of a longer-term vision for homeland security than the Bush people, who know they only have four years.”

Daniel Kaniewski, deputy director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute, based on the campus of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., predicts that the next administration will "take a second look at the Department of Homeland Security and determine if this is exactly how it should be structured.”

The Bush administration has already made some minor tweaks, shifting groups like the Air Marshal Service from the Transportation Security Administration to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division.

But, as Kaniewski notes, “it’s not entirely up to any administration to say how the department is entirely structured. Any major changes would require congressional approval."

Congress has been nothing short of “schizophrenic” in its approach to homeland security, he says, noting that the DHS and Secretary Tom Ridge report to no fewer than 88 congressional committees and subcommittees. 

Who’s on first?
Come January, an awful lot of the names on the doors at the agency will change regardless of who ends up in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.  Typically, high-level department officials rotate out of their jobs after a single term, said Hulnick. “Whoever is president, they are going to have to cope with installing new chiefs.”

Change will start at the top.  It is widely known that Ridge plans to step aside after the election, and if Kerry wins he will install his own nominee.  The rumor mill is already cranked up.  Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has been whispered as Ridge’s replacement in a second Bush administration while Gary Hart, the former senator and co-author of the pre-Sept. 11  Hart-Rudman report that warned of America’s vulnerabilities to terrorists, has been mentioned as a Kerry nominee.

“A new secretary of homeland security, whether Republican or Democrat, is likely to spend more time prioritizing and defining the homeland security agenda,” said Juliette Kayyem of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.  “If Ridge can be criticized for anything it’s that there is still no good sense of what the department of homeland security is supposed to be.  Part of that is just the nature of starting a new agency.”

Although an exodus of top officials would cause some ripples in the long-term security agenda of a Bush administration, such fallout would hardly compare to the impact on the agency's work should Kerry win the White House. 

“Suspended animation is not a bad term to describe what happens when a new administration comes in, no matter how well prepared they are,” said Charles Wise, a professor at Indiana University and a former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration.

Kerry’s administration would have to nominate not only the heads of 22 agencies within the department, but also undersecretaries and deputy assistant secretaries. Just getting all those people cleared for security clearances would take months and months, Wise said.

“So you’ve got eight months, 10 months, 12 months, 14 months, when you’re talking about trying to implement something like this,” Wise said, “and you don’t have the people in place because they haven’t been confirmed and can’t really act, there’s going to be considerable delay [in some programs and policies] resulting from any change in administrations.”

Security in the heartland
Homeland security and the private sector have reached a kind of uneasy détente on the issue of coordinating security.

The government has sought, with little success, vulnerability assessments that companies have done on their own. For example, an oil refinery or a chemical plant may have contracted with a private firm to uncover all its vulnerabilities and to lay out “what if” scenarios in case of a terrorist attack.  Naturally, the government wants access to such information so that it can better prepare and direct government resources.  But if leaked, such information could easily be used by a company’s competitor because of what it might reveal about a firm's  overall production capabilities, and the private sector doesn’t trust the government when it says it has the ability to protect such information.

So far, Kayyem said, the Bush administration has failed to get tough with the private sector.

“Bush’s approach to dealing with the private sector has been very laissez-faire, sort of like ‘can we all get along?’” said Kayyem. “That would likely change under the Democrats because I think their ideology is more regulatory-based.”

Money funneled to state and local governments for homeland security also would likely be handled differently, she said.  “Comparing what Kerry says versus what Bush says, I think there will be changes in the mechanism by which state and local responders get their money,” she said.  “It’s very hard to defend a system that gives $44 per person for homeland defense if you live in Montana or South Dakota and $17 if you live New York,” she said.  “That system just doesn’t pass the straight-face test.”

The lopsided funding has been a contentious issue between the states and the DHS.  The problem is that the formula used by the department to distribute funds doesn't take into account actual threat, meaning that Wyoming appears equal to New York in terms of the likelihood of another terrorist attack, which no one believes is true.

Ridge has said he's looking into getting the formula revised, but that hasn't happened yet.

A Kerry administration would seek to provide more money in general for homeland security needs, said Ivan Eland, director for the Center on Peace and Liberty at the California-based Independent Institute. “The Democrats have seized this issue in the campaign to burnish their security credentials in the face of Bush’s emphasis on his leadership in the war on terror,” Eland said.  “So after the election, Kerry would have some obligation to increase funding in homeland security to keep his election promises.”

However, Eland notes, both Bush and Kerry would be constrained in how they spend, given the soaring federal budget deficit. 

Law enforcement actions in the pursuit of suspected terrorists also would be a bit more constrained in a Kerry administration, said Matthew Lippman, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Kerry will cut back the U.S. Patriot Act and limit some of the prosecutorial activity,” Lippman said. 

But perhaps the biggest effect on homeland security efforts during the next presidency has little do with the warp and woof of logistics, personnel, money for first responders or a revamped vision — and everything to do with whether terrorists strike again on U.S. soil.