The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was founded because of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but 20 years after 9/11, DHS is still struggling. Assembled from 22 different civilian security missions of the federal government, DHS does some of the most important work of any civilian cabinet department. Yet DHS struggles to get successive White Houses to embrace a consistent vision of DHS’s mission and priorities. Since 2010, DHS has had lower employee morale than any other large cabinet department. DHS has a host of management challenges that never seem to get resolved. One major underlying cause — the need to consolidate congressional oversight of DHS — stands alone as the last major un-implemented recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.
DHS was one of the cabinet departments most wracked by turmoil during the Trump administration. A significant number of its leaders, both in headquarters and in the DHS components where most of the work gets done, were in an “acting” role, without Senate confirmation and the increased bureaucratic clout that brings. President Trump liked it that way, but it did not solve DHS’s or the nation’s problems. One of DHS’s greatest 2020 successes — making the 2020 U.S. presidential election the “most secure in American history” — was not what the Trump White House wanted, and its response was to fire the leadership at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) responsible for this success. Morale plummeted in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), normally one of DHS’s better-run agencies, which fell from 90th of 420 Federal agencies in May 2019 to 339th out of 411 in 2021. Politicized firings and resignations abounded at DHS. At the behest of the Trump White House, rules changes and personnel sabotage effectively dismantled key parts of DHS that processed refugee and asylum claims. DHS’s role in protests in Portland, Ore., drew widespread criticism. Progressives called for dismantling the department, and others across the political spectrum decried DHS’s loss of trust. DHS, like others, failed to warn adequately about the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Partly as a result of all this turmoil, very little was done in the last two years of the Trump administration to address DHS’s many structural and institutional problems.
Since January 20, 2021, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and his team have made inroads into DHS’s problems, but DHS still looks like a Swiss Army knife — never the perfect tool, yet you take it everywhere because you need it.
DHS, like other departments today, suffers from the slow confirmation of key leaders, but at DHS the problem is especially serious because the reforms DHS needs most require the close cooperation of both headquarters and component leadership. As of September 11, 2021, the deputy secretary of DHS has been on the job less than three months, the director of CISA two, and the director of USCIS and the head of the DHS policy office little more than a month. Confirmation of the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement are held up in the Senate. Of DHS’s four under secretaries, only one (Policy) has been confirmed; two — Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) and Science and Technology (S&T) — have not been nominated.
Events in 2021 have demonstrated another aspect of the challenge of reforming DHS: the need to deal with the Tyranny of the Urgent. Charles Hummel’s 1967 spiritual pamphlet became an overnight management classic precisely because it describes what often happens at organizations like DHS, where day-to-day problems make it hard to tackle the more important challenges that are necessary for lasting improvement. This is especially formidable in a cabinet department when the Senate-confirmed leadership team is relatively small, because “big” changes are supposed to be left for the permanent senior officials — making the “tyranny of the urgent” even stronger. This is a partial list of DHS’s urgent challenges in the eight months since the inauguration:
- The need to address the COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden administration’s and the nation’s top priority.
- The need to change immigration policies to reflect Biden administration priorities.
- The need to respond to the January 6, 2021, mob attack on the U.S. Capitol and the threat from domestic terrorism.
- The need to expand CISA in response to the $650 million for cybersecurity risk mitigation in the American Rescue Act passed in March.
- The need to rebuild capabilities to process refugee and asylum claims at USCIS.
- An epidemic of ransomware against U.S. businesses and infrastructure.
- The record-high number of encounters at the southwest border, higher than any seen since March 2000.
- Major reforms to speed up the processing of the backlog of asylum and refugee cases.
- The need to address the arrival of 40,000 Afghans after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15. DHS was put in charge of coordinating the federal response on August 29.
- Hurricane Ida, the second-most damaging hurricane ever to hit Louisiana (after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina), which afterwards killed dozens and caused extensive damage in New Jersey, New York, and elsewhere.
Many of these challenges have led to important achievements that go to DHS’s core missions. However, DHS’s more fundamental challenges have been only partially addressed. I was able to find only one public instance of a DHS official publicly acknowledging the problem of the tyranny of the urgent: CISA Director Jen Easterly’s August 24 interview in CyberScoop, which described her as wanting to “spend less time putting out fires and more time preparing for [cyber] incidents in an attempt to reduce their impact.” In that interview, she announced several recent initiatives, including calling on top cyber talent in the private sector, to achieve that goal.
Re-focus the mission
An important starting point in assessing the future of DHS is how DHS views its missions. From the outset, the Biden administration rightly prioritized the nation’s response to COVID-19 and gave DHS, through the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), an important role in the response. The Biden administration also rightly prioritized the federal government’s response to climate change and extreme weather. As of early September 2021, however, vital funding to enable DHS to work with state, local, tribal, and territorial governments and the private sector to protect critical infrastructure from climate change is held up because it is incorporated into part of the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan currently being debated in Congress.
A substantial part of DHS’s energy has gone toward the mission of establishing U.S. immigration priorities and policies. The surge in encounters at the southwest border was not as much due to specific Biden administration policies — numerous senior officials urged potential migrants to stay home — as it was to the simple fact that Joe Biden was not Donald Trump. Conservatives call this a border crisis, but the Biden administration is trying to speed up processing of asylum and refugee claims while not keeping everyone in detention facilities that have limited capacity.
“What has been missing, but may be unveiled soon, is an over-arching vision for what DHS should be doing that sets DHS apart from what the departments of State, Defense, Justice, and FBI do.”
While the Homeland Security Act of 2002 says that “the primary mission of the Department is to (A) prevent terrorist attacks within the United States,” in reality DHS’s responsibilities for counterterrorism are limited. The Biden administration rightly refocused and increased funding for DHS programs to prevent domestic terrorism, doubling one program from $10 million to $20 million and setting aside at least $77 million in two other programs.
DHS’s other priority mission area is protecting American democracy from cyber threats, threats to election infrastructure, and other non-kinetic threats to the nation. Cybersecurity has received the lion’s share of the attention, with both Secretary Mayorkas and CISA director Jen Easterly delivering keynotes at the “Black Hat” cybersecurity conference in early August. Much of DHS’s other work in this area has been without fanfare. Thus far, CISA Director Easterly has made only one significant election security appearance — August 14 in Des Moines, Iowa, at a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State — and gave one interview to the Associated Press.
What has been missing, but may be unveiled soon, is an over-arching vision for what DHS should be doing that sets DHS apart from what the departments of State, Defense, Justice, and FBI do. There are several different visions in play. The Atlantic Council’s Future of DHS Project recommended in September 2020 that just as DoD’s bumper-sticker version of its mission is “We fight and win America’s wars,” DHS needs to think of its mission as “We lead the defense of the Nation against non-military threats.” The progressive Center for American Progress in June 2021 recommended DHS shift to a safety and services framework. Scholars at the Center for a New American Security in May 2020 recommended an overhaul of DHS’s authorization statute and enhancing oversight and accountability over DHS.
One option, of course, is not to embrace any of these models of change, but to stick with the current set of mission stovepipes. Congressional gridlock and the “tyranny of the urgent” both pull in that direction as friction resisting change. House Committee on Homeland Security chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) has introduced the “DHS Reform Act of 2021” (H.R. 4357) in part to help force a discussion of DHS’s future direction.
Communications and Public-Private Partnerships
Advocates of change at DHS are united in their call for increased and improved communications — between DHS and the public, and between DHS and its employees. The Atlantic Council study called communications one of DHS’s core missions. DHS’s need to update its approach to public-private partnerships and how it interacts with state, local, tribal, and territorial governments and the private sector was a key part of the Atlantic Council study.
Employee Morale and Management Reforms
DHS faces a host of internal management challenges, with consistently low employee morale foremost among them. Among the most urgent problems are low pay and work rules problems at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). On June 3, DHS announced it was instituting work rules changes and planning an increase in pay for most TSA screeners. When put into effect, this could help alleviate problems in driving overall low morale at TSA.
Is “More” Enough?
The overarching question facing DHS on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is whether the changes it has initiated thus far, or has in the pipeline, will be enough to achieve success.
Thus, while the administration deserves credit for its June 2021 National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism and for increasing DHS grants money to counter domestic terrorism, what is still missing is a sense of what it will take to achieve victory over domestic terrorism, and what resources will be required from the Congress. The administration has thus far presented no sense of the scale required — how many thousands of law enforcement officers could benefit from training on dealing with illegal militias, how to get the thousands of local police forces to recognize and deal with threats of violence from white supremacists, or how many community groups need to be ready to steer people away from violence toward constructive, constitutional solutions to our country’s problems.
The same could be said of the additional personnel being dedicated to deciding refugee and asylum cases at the southwest border under the rules proposed in August, or how many people DHS will dedicate to security vetting of Afghans relocated to the United States after the fall of Kabul. DHS dispatched 400 employees from CBP, USCG, TSA, and other agencies to assist in vetting Afghans in late August. To process security checks on up to 50,000 Afghans in a reasonable amount of time — say, 95 percent by the end of 2021 — will take a lot more than 400 people (to be sure, most of those should come from DoD).
Equally, lawmakers are considering increasing CISA’s fiscal year 2022 budget by $400 million to $2.4 billion, while Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), ranking Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security, says CISA needs to be a $5 billion agency in the next five years. In this, he is on the right track.
There are dangers in DHS doing too much of the wrong things, as the year 2020 proved. The greater danger in 2021 and 2022, however, is in DHS doing too little of the right things. That is ultimately one of the most serious homeland security challenges we face on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.