Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Eliminating White House Homeland Security Adviser and Council Shortsighted

Is this the end of the short line for the White House homeland security adviser (HSA) and Homeland Security Council (HSC)? I hope not. However, according to Shane Harris of the National Journal and others, the incoming Obama administration is seriously considering doing away with both post-9/11 creations. In my opinion, this is a grave error and one that should be thought through more carefully.

A Little History

On October 8, 2001, President Bush issued Executive Order 13228 which created both the HSA and HSC, as well as the now-defunct Office of Homeland Security, the pre-cursor to the Department of Homeland Security. According to Section 5 of E.O. 13228, the HSC "shall be responsible for advising and assisting the President with respect to all aspects of homeland security. The Council shall serve as the mechanism for ensuring coordination of homeland security-related activities of executive departments and agencies and effective development and implementation of homeland security policies....The Assistant to the President for Homeland Security shall be responsible, at the President's direction, for determining the agenda, ensuring that necessary papers are prepared, and recording Council actions and Presidential decisions." The HSC was modeled after the National Security Council and the HSA was modeled after the National Security Adviser.

Why They May be Harder to Kill than First Thought

Reorganizing the White House by folding the Homeland Security Council into the National Security Council and doing away with the Homeland Security Adviser position altogether will be much more difficult than speculation suggests. Why? Because the legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security also made permanent the HSC and HSA. Public Law 107-296 (Sect. 901) provides statutory authority for the existence of both the Homeland Security Council and Homeland Security Adviser. In fact, the National Security Adviser and Homeland Security Adviser are the only two White House commissioned officers mandated by Congressional statute (the NSA and NSC were created as a result of the National Security Act of 1947 and subsequent legislation). Thus, a president cannot just choose to disband the HSC or not fill the position of HSA--though he can ignore them as Harry Truman initially did after the NSC was foisted upon him by Congress. An Act of Congress would be necessary to reorganize the homeland and national security machinery and this would not be a slam dunk by any means.

Why Keep Both?

Though the HSC and HSA were created in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, their value lies not in coordinating in the counter terrorism area. This is something that the NSC could likely handle as counter terrorsim has a foreign policy/national security component anyway. Rather, it is in areas such as response to natural disasters (such as hurricanes, forest fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods), man-made accidents (such as chemical spills, nuclear reactor meltdowns), and public health emergencies (such as SARS, avian flu) that the HSC and HSA are critical components to a White House advisory system inherently biased toward the sexier problems of foreign policy and international intrigue. In fact, events in these areas--particularly natural disasters--will occur on President Obama's watch at a much more frequent rate than the occasional terrorist incident. Just look at the path of destruction, human and economic, produced just in the 2008 hurricane season alone ($54 billion in property damage).

In the Clinton years, the head of FEMA, James Lee Witt, was Bill Clinton's emergency management point person, had cabinet-level status, and was given carte blanche in terms of resources and access to the president. As is well-known, FEMA and it's director were downgraded in status in the early Bush 43 years and eventually enveloped into DHS upon its creation in 2003. In the place once occupied by a strong FEMA and well-respected FEMA Director resides the HSA and HSC. Downgrading and/or eliminating these young institutions would be the equivalent of what happened in 2001 to FEMA. Can the National Security Adviser really add more responsibility to his/her portfolio? They are already responsible for coordinating policy and advice about everything happening outside of America's borders--do they need to be responsible for everything happening inside as well? Even if you create two strong deputy national security advisers responsible for domestic (including homeland security) and foreign issues respectively, they will lack the authority and status of their boss. Could the deputy NSA for domestic affairs really command the attention or have the necessary access to the president or even the NSA on important homeland security matters? And what if the NSA completely devalues the role and import of homeland security matters or simply defines it as counter terrorism, as is often the case, to the detriment of emergency preparedness and disaster response? Hurricane Katrina showed the danger of a homeland security system slanted toward prevention of and preparedness for domestic terrorism at the expense of natural disaster preparedness and response. I hope this country and the incoming White House don't repeat the same mistakes. But I fear they are about to.

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