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Thursday, February 2, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: Missed Opportunity as New DHS Terrorism and Targeted Violence Framework Lacks SAFETY Act Mentions

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has released its Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence (2019) (the Framework). The document is thorough, specific, and lays out areas of concern to the Nation’s security, and the proposed actions to mitigate them. Specifically, I was very encouraged to see the concepts around Countering Violent Extremism reintroduced as a Department of Homeland security priority especially with the “growing threat from” Targeted Violence (TV) called out explicitly. The document includes as examples of TV attacks as ones “otherwise lacking a clearly discernible political, ideological, or religious motivation.” (page 4) This is important when describing most active shooter events like the Las Vegas shooting in 2017 or most school shootings when the perpetrator(s) does not have “a clear ideological motive.” (page 11)

In its Introduction, the Framework discusses several of DHS’ past achievements (e.g., the National Targeting Center and increased information sharing). The Introduction continues by noting that the “Strategy represents a recommitment to, and strengthening of, what has worked.” (page 6) Unfortunately, in the examples of successes and in the subsequent enumeration of Priority Actions, there is a glaring lack of discussion about the Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies Act (SAFETY Act).

The SAFETY Act was part of the Homeland Security Act that went into effect after the 9/11 tragedy and created DHS. It is a program that encourages the deployment of antiterrorism technologies into the exact areas described as of concern in the Framework: soft targets “such as schools, workplaces, entertainment venues, transportation nodes, and houses of worship.” (page 30) This is achieved through the liability protection the SAFETY Act provides to the companies deploying products and services and their customers. In this way, technology that might not have been deployed due to a company’s fear of liability becomes available to protect the public. The Office of SAFETY Act Implementation (OSAI) has been churning out Designations and Certifications for over 15 years.

These awards go to a company’s product or service after an extensive review by subject matter experts. Some awards have gone to cutting edge technology that needs the SAFETY Act coverage in order to show potential customers that DHS has deemed the technology to be effective (or, in the cases of some prototypes, potentially effective). In other cases, customers are requiring vendors’ product or service has SAFETY Act coverage as a procurement condition because of the liability protection that flows down to the end users. To date, there have been over 1,100 awards in categories including detection devices for CBRNE, security guard services, security best practices, and cybersecurity. The SAFETY Act has long been considered one of DHS’ most successful programs. It is a shame it was left off the document’s brag list.

Perhaps more of a shame is that the SAFETY Act is not listed as a so-called Priority Action for any of the four goals the Framework lays out.[1] The SAFETY Act’s success in encouraging products and services that “prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from” (page 29) potential acts of terrorism would have worked to satisfy several of the Framework’s Goals.

Despite the lack of discussion of the SAFETY Act, the Framework potentially represents an extremely significant change to the SAFETY Act as a result of the explicit focus on Homegrown Violent Extremism (HVE) and TV as DHS priorities; the SAFETY Act, as is, allows the DHS secretary to consider motivation behind an attack as a factor in whether or not to activate its liability protections. However, if the Act’s definition of an Act of Terrorism (AoT) were to include HVE and TV, then a whole new and much larger group of companies would be eligible for coverage. For instance, since most active shooter events have not involved foreign terrorist organizations, DHS has not deemed any to be AoT under the SAFETY Act. Thus, companies with counter active shooter technology have not seen the value of, or been eligible for, SAFETY Act coverage. If the definition of an AOT changes, important liability protections that shield the end user, and to varying degrees the company with the relevant product or service, will incentivize both to deploy the products and services. This, in turn, will result in more security products and services that protect our schools, workplaces, entertainment venues, transportation nodes, and houses of worship.

To recommit to and strengthen the SAFETY Act program (being “something that has worked”), there are several things that must happen:

  1. broaden the Act (explicitly or by practice) to cover HVE and TV
  2. fund the program generously, and
  3. use DHS outreach to evangelize the Act

By broadening the Act’s reach, significantly more products and services become eligible and see the value in pursuing coverage. Assuming that is successful, a major increase in OSAI’s budget must occur. To my knowledge, despite the growth in the program’s number of awards, its budget has essentially remained flat for many, many years. Lastly, in DHS’ copious outreach, speaking engagements, and written strategies, there should always be mention of the SAFETY Act and its advantages for those offering products and services to fight terrorism.

Let’s hope the absence of the SAFETY Act in this year’s Framework is remedied through the just and significant suggestions above.

David McWhorter on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidmcwhorter/

[1] Goal 1: Understand the evolving terrorism and targeted violence threat environment, and support partners in the Homeland Security enterprise through this specialized knowledge. Goal 2: Prevent terrorists and other hostile actors from entering the United States and deny them the opportunity to exploit the nation’s trade, immigration, and domestic and international travel systems. Goal 3: prevent terrorism and targeted violence. Goal 4: Enhance US infrastructure protections and community preparedness.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

New DHS Strategy: ‘An Aware Society’ Is Best Way to Prevent Terrorism, ‘Targeted Violence’

David A. McWhorter, Ph.D.
After a postdoctoral appointment at The National Institute for Science and Technology (NIST), Dr. McWhorter spent over seven years at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a Federally Funded Research and Development Center. There, in addition to several Department of Defense projects, he served as the Deputy Project Leader for IDA on the US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) SAFETY Act (the Support Anti-terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies Act of 2002). In this position he led the technical evaluations of anti-terrorism products and services across a broad spectrum of countermeasures for chemical, biological, explosive, nuclear, cyber and human threats, including services. Because his involvement with the SAFETY Act began at the Act’s inception, he was instrumental in orchestrating the creation of the evaluation process, the drafting of the application kits, the coordination of several government procurements, and the identification of Subject Matter Experts. In 2007, Dr. McWhorter joined Catalyst Partners, a DC-based homeland security consulting and government relations firm. In his role as a Principal, he begun Catalyst’s SAFETY Act Practice and Technology Evaluation Practice. He represented clients in front of DHS, private sector companies, and other potential customers, spearheading dozens of successful SAFETY Act applications. Dr. McWhorter started his own firm in 2014: The Homeland Security Consulting Group (HSCG). Working with industry partners, The HSCG continues serving clients across the Homeland Security space. In the years since The HSCG was founded, Dr. McWhorter has prepared several more dozen successful SAFETY Act applications for his clients.

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