Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan speaks to agents and officers from Air and Marine Operations, U.S. Border Patrol, and Office of Field Operations, on Aug. 18, 2020, in Yuma, Arizona. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Jerry Glaser)

DHS Needs Urgent Refocus on Modern Threats, Partnerships and Morale, Say Former Officials

The Department of Homeland Security needs to refocus its mission to tackle major nonmilitary threats including pandemics and cyber attacks, modernize the homeland security enterprise, and pull up its workplace morale, former DHS officials said in a new report from the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Former DHS Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection Caitlin Durkovich, an HSToday contributing editor, and former DHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy Thomas Warrick argued that dismantling DHS is not the solution, but “today’s challenges demand more DHS leadership attention and resources, even as the department needs to meet all its other current missions.”

Warrick, director of the center’s Future of DHS Project, and Durkovich, the project’s co-director, crafted their findings and recommendations with input from a senior advisory board composed of former secretaries and acting secretaries of DHS and a distinguished bipartisan study group of more than 100 homeland and national security experts.

As of the beginning of this month, 17 senior DHS officials were serving in an acting capacity and the department has come in last place in federal employee morale surveys among large cabinet departments every year since 2010, they noted.

“What DHS does, or should be doing, is vital to the security and safety of Americans and to national security broadly,” Warrick and Durkovich wrote. “DHS is the third-largest cabinet department with more than 240,000 employees and an annual budget of $62 billion. Scattering DHS’s functions among other cabinet departments would not make those missions and capabilities go away.”

First, they wrote, the department needs to look at what’s happening with the COVID-19 pandemic — on track to kill 25 times the number of people killed on 9/11 in the last five months of this year — and see that disease threats have “not yet received the leadership attention and resources” deserved, and as a result “the American people are paying a terrible price.”

DHS also needs to see that’s it “best suited” to defend again mounting threats from “foreign nation-states — specifically Russia, China, and Iran — executing a strategy to weaken the United States by targeting American democracy itself.” Warrick and Durkovich said it’s critical that “for the defense of American democracy to succeed, the secretary of homeland security and DHS generally will need to be, to the greatest extent possible, ‘above politics.'”

“The United States currently has no effective, comprehensive defense against this new style of non-kinetic warfare,” they noted, stressing that to effectively combat the threat “DHS will need more people and resources, and support from other parts of the U.S. government.”

And the department will have to prepare for the changing terrorist threat. “Today, terrorist threats to the United States have changed from what they were immediately after 9/11—and have further evolved from what they were as recently as 2016. The international terrorist threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda has not gone away, and DHS needs to use the next two to three years to get ready for what is coming next,” Warrick and Durkovich wrote. “…Domestic terrorism by white supremacists and other ‘homegrown’ causes also needs more DHS attention and resources.”

The report’s recommendations include maintaining resources on existing missions and adding resources for the above priorities — “if 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'” — along with improving communications and public engagement and investing “urgently in considerably wider access to classified voice and data networks used throughout the national security community.”

On COVID-19, DHS “urgently needs to devote significantly greater leadership focus and resources to efforts” against the pandemic, ensure medical stockpiles are quickly rebuilt, and “be more proactive in sounding the national alarm in future pandemics to ensure the federal government is fully mobilized.”

Warrick and Durkovich emphasized that “protecting American democracy and building a resilient homeland is a shared endeavor with many stakeholders,” and “DHS should not be viewed at the top of a pyramid directing downwards — if anything, the ‘pyramid’ is inverted with DHS often in a supporting role or called upon to assist when partner resources are overwhelmed and they ask for federal assistance.”

To modernize these essential public-private partnerships, the former DHS leaders recommended:

  • “Task the Office of Partnership and Engagement with developing a comprehensive engagement strategy to increase trust and harmonize engagement with key private sector partners and make better use of convening authorities.
  • DHS should inventory its information-sharing relationships and adjust its practices according to the different levels and capabilities of state, local, tribal, territorial and private sector stakeholders.
  • DHS should devolve operational-support decisions to the local level to strengthen trust with SLTT partners—and have DHS’s local representatives communicate to headquarters what they are hearing.
  • DHS should designate ‘systemically important critical infrastructure’ and DHS’s support should be comparable to what DOD provides to the companies in the defense industrial complex.
  • DHS should ensure threats against systemically important critical infrastructure are a priority across the Intelligence Community.”

Warrick and Durkovich said that “addressing the workplace issues that drive DHS’s low morale needs to be one of DHS’s top priorities.”

“A lack of common DHS culture and other challenges related to organizational culture and different degrees of employee engagement are holding DHS back as a department from moving toward a culture of innovation, collaboration, and empowerment,” they wrote. “DHS employees are focused on their component’s goals and appear not to know or understand departmental strategies or goals, nor how their individual work contributes to the larger DHS mission.”

Turning around DHS’s morale problems starts with TSA and CBP, the two components most responsible for the department’s low scores, they argued. “DHS has some remarkable success stories in turning around employee morale that need to be recognized, understood, and, where possible, replicated,” highlighting Under Secretary Francis Taylor’s 2014 reorganization of Intelligence and Analysis, the Secret Service rebound from its 2012 prostitution scandal, and ICE’s morale surge under Director Sarah Saldaña.

Recommendations to improve morale include:

  • “DHS’s headquarters and component leaders need to recognize that morale at DHS can be improved by sustained focus and attention on the underlying workforce issues that drive the department’s low morale.
  • DHS needs to move to a ‘culture of cultures’ approach, celebrating the unique aspects of each component, while providing a unifying cultural overlay around a mission that most of its employees can embrace.
  • Public trust and support for DHS’s mission is vitally important.
  • DHS should considerably increase two-way communications with its employees. DHS leadership needs to listen more to what employees are saying. DHS should brief national and departmental strategies to all employees so they know how their work contributes to such strategies.
  • DHS should make better use of the FEVS surveys as a management tool.
  • DHS should create a career path for entry-level personnel, especially from TSA, to get preference for hiring into other DHS jobs with better long-term career prospects.”

“If TSA’s morale can be raised by fifteen to eighteen points, that alone would be enough to raise DHS out of last place in federal workforce morale,” Warrick and Durkovich wrote, stressing that the agency can hike morale “by urgently addressing issues of pay, promotions and career advancement, and employee empowerment.”

Customs and Border Protection, however, “presents a totally different picture — CBP needs to address problems relating to trust, how it deals with poor performers, and promotions.”

The report concluded that “DHS will never achieve its potential as a cabinet department until it addresses its headquarters-component problems.”

Warrick and Durkovich said the department should bring together policy and budget officials more often, have better communication with components, and rotate component personnel into headquarters so they gain experience.

“DHS should make no major reorganizational changes in the next year because the resulting disruption will take focus away from DHS’s more urgent mission and management challenges,” they wrote, adding that the department should have an “S3” deputy secretary-level official just below the current deputy secretary in rank to coordinate DHS’s law enforcement components. Additionally, “DHS should immediately return policy officials working biological, chemical, and nuclear threat issues to PLCY to support DHS’s urgent and ongoing response to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic, the long-term threat to US infrastructure from climate and weather changes, and the increasing non-kinetic actions by nation-state adversaries in 2020 that seek to undermine U.S. power all point to the need for the United States to make another fundamental change in how the U.S. government defends the nation and keeps the American people safe,” Warrick and Durkovich wrote. “The best solution available is to refocus the Department of Homeland Security and to fix DHS’s internal problems so it can lead the defense of the nation against nonmilitary threats.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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