On June 17, 2020, Tucson Sector Border Patrol Agents conduct operations at the Highway 86 checkpoint near Tucson, Ariz. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Jerry Glaser)

DHS Should Shift to ‘Communicating,’ ‘Welcoming’ Focus and ‘Recalibrate’ Enforcement, Report Argues

The responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security should be streamlined with a heavier focus on disaster relief and cybersecurity and narrower involvement in law enforcement activities, a D.C. think tank argued in a report proposing a new framework for the department.

“DHS should take a broader view of what it means to keep the nation secure and adapt its mission and activities accordingly. DHS must recognize that many serious challenges to America’s safety and security originate at home or are largely borderless by nature,” said Redefining Homeland Security: A New Framework for DHS To Meet Today’s Challenges by Mara Rudman, Rudy deLeon, Joel Martinez, Elisa Massimino, Silva Mathema, Katrina Mulligan, Alexandra Schmitt, and Philip E. Wolgin at the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy institute.

“Going forward, DHS should reorganize its activities around roles in connecting, communicating, facilitating, welcoming, and helping — in addition to a recalibrated role for protecting, securing, preventing, and enforcing,” the authors argue. “DHS should prioritize service and partnerships, connecting people in the United States to federal services and providing value to the American people and those who live, study, work, travel, or seek safety here.”

The authors contend that “while the department still has an important role to play in preventing attacks against the United States from abroad, it is time to refine the department’s mission and priorities to ensure that they fit current needs,” adding that neither dismantling the department nor giving it more responsibilities emerge as “the right choice.”

Past efforts to reform the department “and the use of DHS to advance partisan political objectives have led to sharp swings in the department’s headquarters-level focus,” the report adds, stating that “these efforts have been at some times political and at other times reactive rather than grounded in a clear articulation of DHS’s role within the federal bureaucracy.”

The authors argue that DHS has been susceptible to political misuse because of its expansive authorities and decentralized nature, that it “was given broad and at times unclear legal authorities that it has used in ways that have harmed the public it is supposed to serve,” has “disorganized” oversight from too many committees of jurisdiction in Congress, and a headquarters without the “personnel, resources, or authority to effectively lead a department of DHS’s size today.”

By recalibrating, they state, DHS could lead better in emergency preparedness and response capabilities, deliver “a trusted, effective mechanism to communicate threat information, including intelligence information, with the public and private sectors and between different levels of state, local, and federal government officials,” conduct “rational border management” that “treats immigration as an asset to be managed rather than a crime to be enforced,” and be “a more empowered and proactive agency that shares cyberthreat intelligence between businesses and government agencies, with the aim of helping organizations quickly identify and mitigate potential cyberincursions.”

A department realigned under their suggested framework, the authors also contend, could better be part of “a strong, coordinated response” against domestic extremism fueled largely by white supremacists and violent militia extremists, and fill an “important role” in “safeguarding the security of personal or private information from malicious cyberactors and foreign governments.”

“Establishing the protection of civil liberties and privacy as a core DHS mission would fill a critical gap in executive branch roles that is not currently being comprehensively addressed by other departments and agencies,” the report states.

The report lauds the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency as “one of DHS’s most visible success stories” that works within a public-private partnership framework to heighten information-sharing about threats. “DHS should scale efforts being led by the CISA to prioritize partnership with stakeholders across its missions and priorities. That might mean proactively engaging with American businesses, alongside CBP, to inform efforts to improve the movement of goods and people across borders or refining immigration services so that processes dignify and welcome those who seek to invest their talents here,” the authors state. “It might mean working with public and private sector stakeholders to deliver better information about risks to critical infrastructure. Or it might mean partnering with technology companies to thwart domestic extremist messaging on online platforms. In these and other areas, DHS should lead the federal government’s efforts to connect nonfederal officials with their counterparts in the federal government and should use those relationships to advance safety and security.”

The department “could also play an important role in countering disinformation in partnership with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center” and “can uniquely enlist the private sector and the American people in protecting the nation” by communicating threats and dispelling disinformation.

Lifting up DHS’s Trusted Traveler programs as an example, the authors contend that DHS should focus on “providing services and delivering real value to Americans and those traveling to the United States” and refocus the department’s immigration activities “on the provision of services to facilitate admission, with enforcement that supports that objective.”

“A dedicated, proactive focus on helping the public may provide a useful shift in DHS’s public perception—something sorely needed after the enforcement-heavy reputation it acquired during the Trump administration,” the authors wrote. “FEMA recently covered DHS logos on vehicles used for vaccine distribution after concerns that the urban community it was targeting would refuse services from the department.”

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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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