DHS twenty years after 9/11: Looking back and looking ahead

Surrounded by members of Congress, U.S. President Bush George W. Bush(at podium) prepares to sign the Homeland Security Act November 25,2002 creating a vast Department of Homeland Security to preventterrorist attacks on the United States, setting in motion the biggestgovernment reorganization in half a century that could take years tocomplete. "The continuing threat of terrorism, the threat of massmurder on our own soil will be met by a unified, effective response,"Bush said at the White House signing ceremony. REUTERS/Win McNameeWM/GAC

20th anniversary 9_11 graphic (1)Twenty years after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) looks like one of the most important and effective government responses to the traumatic events of that day. While DHS has faced its share of challenges over the past two decades, the United States is much more secure today because it is there. We have not had another terrorist attack on our homeland as large and deadly as 9/11, and most smaller attempts have been stopped.

As security threats to our nation have evolved, DHS has continued to adapt. For example, in recent years it has increased its focus on cyber threats and domestic terrorism. But DHS cannot diminish its original reason for being—defending our homeland against foreign terrorist threats, especially in light of the recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the likelihood that will increase the possibility of terrorist attacks on the United States.

The Homeland Security Act that established DHS was signed into law in November 2002 by President Bush, following a year of spirited debate and dialogue within Congress and with the Bush Administration. It was an honor to work closely on this with my Republican colleagues Fred Thompson and Susan Collins. While efforts to develop and pass the legislation were sometimes contentious, we were ultimately able to forge a grand bipartisan compromise, undoubtedly facilitated by our shared concerns about the threat of additional terrorist attacks on the homeland. We came together to establish the Department, merging 22 existing agencies and sub-agencies from across the federal government and establishing new offices in DHS for intelligence coordination and investments in science and technology.

The new department was given responsibility not just for counterterrorism but for a broader set of related homeland security missions, including border security, transportation security, disaster response, and critical infrastructure protection.

As we worked on this legislation, we had no illusions about the challenges that DHS would face. It was the result of a complex merger. But given the threats facing the nation, we felt that reform was necessary. As I said during the Senate floor debate on the legislation:

“Building this Department will involve no shortage of problems, as any massive undertaking of this kind would – but we, after this initial act of creation, must be ready to improve, to support, and ultimately to protect the American people with this Department. We have no choice.”

DHS has certainly had its problems over the last two decades, some small and others more serious, from jokes on late night television shows about the color-coded threat alert system, to the mismanaged response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, to operational challenges at the southwest border in recent years. It has also faced ongoing challenges with employee morale and developing a united organizational culture across its operational elements, each of which brought its separate history to DHS. Former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano once said to me that her goal was to have everyone at DHS speak the same language, even if with different accents. It seems to me that has now happened.

DHS has also led many successful initiatives that have enhanced our nation’s homeland security. We now have a robust system of screening and vetting at our borders and airports that make it much more difficult for foreign terrorists and other illicit actors to travel to the U.S. and attempt to carry out attacks or engage in criminal activity. We have eliminated information-sharing barriers that hindered key federal, state and local agencies from sharing information on potential threats. We have stronger disaster response capabilities today, both at a FEMA that was reformed after Hurricane Katrina and in our states and localities. And DHS has greatly matured its role in cybersecurity over the past 15 years, leading to bipartisan congressional support for the creation of the Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency at DHS in 2018.

In looking back on this two-decade record, it is absolutely clear that it was the right decision to create DHS. Some have argued for dismantling DHS and scattering its component agencies back to other federal departments. That would be a terrible mistake that would undermine our security when threats to our homeland are growing in lethality and diversity. If DHS did not exist today, Congress would undoubtedly create it.

For example, given the severity and impact of cyber threats, additional investment to expand capabilities at CISA is needed – CISA still only accounts for 2% of the overall DHS budget. More support is also needed at DHS to combat domestic terrorism threats, given the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol and other lawless activities from the left and right extremes. And it is likely that novel threats and risks will emerge in the coming decade, driven by technological and societal changes, including bioterrorism stimulated by COVID-19. DHS needs to evolve to counter them.

But to repeat, DHS cannot lose focus on its founding post 9/11 counterterrorism mission. The FBI has the primary investigative role for terrorism, but DHS has important responsibilities for counterterrorism, including traveler screening and vetting, intelligence information-sharing, aviation security, critical infrastructure protection, and the prevention, protection and response to the use of weapons of mass destruction inside the U.S.

The withdrawal of U.S. military and intelligence assets from Afghanistan increases the importance of these homeland counterterrorism responsibilities. As our capabilities to disrupt terrorist activity from Afghanistan diminish drastically, our defenses at home become much more important to disrupting and preventing attacks like the devastating ones on 9/11 that led to the creation of DHS.

DHS leaders can also help by looking for ways to develop bipartisan consensus on the border and immigration mission of the Department.

These are all challenges that DHS can begin to tackle in its Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, which by law is due to be delivered to Congress by the end of this year. And there should be active Congressional oversight of DHS. Congress still needs to fix its own fragmented jurisdiction over DHS which ranges across more than one hundred committees and subcommittees. When it comes to homeland security, Congress has been effective at reforming everyone except itself. Seventeen years after the 9/11 Commission issued its report, this is still its only unimplemented recommendation.

Finally, it is critical that the leadership of DHS actively steer away from politics and partisanship, which obviously hurts the Department’s ability to carry out its critical missions. The first four Secretaries: Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff, Janet Napolitano, and Jeh Johnson—two Republicans and two Democrats—were all very careful to avoid partisan activities. But that important norm eroded during the Trump Administration, fueling a much more polarized debate on border security, immigration, and counterterrorism and delegitimizing agencies in DHS such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) among the American people. Current and future DHS leaders need to demonstrate through their actions that they reject politicization of homeland security.

As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and remember those who lost their lives on that tragic day, we must appreciate the big steps that we took together across party lines to reform our government and improve our homeland defenses. And we must be thankful to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have served at DHS over the past two decades with such effectiveness. There is no doubt that as a result, the American people have been better protected at home, and will, with ongoing bipartisan support of DHS, continue to be.