The Shape of Homeland Security to Come: A Kerry Administration

Two things stand out in both on- and off-the-record interviews of Democratic supporters and non-partisan observers regarding the likely approach that an administration under Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) would take toward homeland security and the war on terror.

One is the belief in Kerry’s willingness to aggressively innovate and spend the dollars necessary to prepare the nation for the unthinkable.

The other is a belief in his willingness to team up with the most unlikely of political opposites to get things done that he believes are in the nation’s best interest.

Finding the money

The prevailing wisdom among Kerry’s supporters and outside observers is that a Kerry administration would work to infuse homeland security with money the Bush administration has withheld in pursuit of novel technology and resources to battle terrorists at home and abroad. This includes providing the nation’s first responders with the tools they need to deal with the consequences of catastrophic terrorism.

While this would be a significant departure from the Bush White House, to pull it off Kerry would have to find innovative ways to find the money without cutting sacred Democratic programs and raising taxes on the middle class. Options include putting off scheduled tax breaks and putting the brakes on a $53 billion national missile defense system, which Kerry has called “the wrong priority for a war on terror.”

“This kind of money could put a lot of firemen and police and emergency medical personnel on the street. Terrorism is going to happen again in this country, and our first responder community has to be ready. … This isn’t on the Bush radar screen,” a Kerry campaign operative who requested anonymity told HSToday.

The International Association of Fire Fighters endorsed Kerry a year ago because he’d vowed to use federal funds to hire more firefighters.

Kerry has proposed doubling the size of the AmeriCorps volunteer program and providing these workers with emergency medical and other training to give the corps the additional mission of protecting local communities in the event of a terrorist attack. He has also called for a new Community Defense Service comprising hundreds of thousands of Americans throughout the country to assist their respective communities in the event of an attack.

More aggressive but not radical

Experts on homeland security differ on a Kerry administration’s likely course in homeland security. Non-partisan experts predict a more aggressive approach, but not a radical one. Democratic experts see a big change from today.

Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and defense expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, said Kerry’s position on first responders is certainly distinctively more aggressive than Bush’s and represents the thinking of “a number of Democrats,” but doesn’t represent a terriblyradical departure. “Kerry has said he’ll provide more resources for homeland security and other needs because the Bush administration’s fiscal policy has hurt stateand local governments and [has] not—allegedly—placed a high enough premium on preparing first responders for consequence management.”

O’Hanlon said Kerry would likely “pick out two or three important policies and try to do them differently, but overall there’d not be that much difference” from Bush “in terms of specific budget targets or overall strategy. That’s probably a summary that a lot of Kerry people would object to, but that’s how I see it. I don’t think it reflects badly on Kerry, but I think it suggests he may have a marginally better homeland security policy than President Bush—[but] it would not be dramatically different or better, I don’t think.”

Kerry’s big issue, O’Hanlon noted, would be paying for his proposals: “He’s got a bit of a fiscal challenge, and he’s going to have to find some programs that he’s been talking about on the campaign trail where he can make a little money go a long way. So I tend to think that on most of these sorts of homeland-security issues there’s not been a theme that he’s consistently come back to.”

Paul Light, another senior fellow at Brookings and an expert on governance, also told HSToday he doesn’t “see much of a difference between either [a Bush or Kerry administration] in the homeland security arena. I think that a Kerry administration might be—and this is a very strong ‘might’—be a little more willing to put more money into the homeland security budget.”

Light explained that “the Bush administration has been very reluctant to spend on homeland security—I mean, they’ve made a helluva tight fist. I think there’s a lot of pressure inside the Bush administration to try and keep the budget as low as possible without endangering security. I think the fact that this administration has led such large deficits has led to an overcorrection, shall we say, in the Bush Office of Management and Budget—kind of nickel-and-diming in homeland security, which I think is unwise at this particular point.”

Light said it’s his guess that “a Kerry administration might take off some of those shackles, although the [Republican-controlled] House Appropriations Committee is clearly part of the issue” and a Kerry White House would have to deal with it.

In contrast, Will Marshall, president of the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), a Democratic Party think-tank, said that Kerry “has a historic opportunity to do for Democrats on national security what Bill Clinton did for his party on domestic policy: jettison old ideological baggage” and “embrace innovation and reform,” though he did not provide specifics.

Steven Nider, director of foreign and security studies at PPI, does see fundamental differences between a Kerry and Bush administration. “The alliance issue is one,” Nider pointed out. Kerry would in fact diverge significantly from Bush by forging what he describes as “a new era of alliances.” Nider also said Kerry’s homeland-security strategy differs notably from Bush’s when it comes to strategic vulnerable national infrastructure. “The guarding and hardening of vulnerable targets, especially chemical plants, has been a big theme of Kerry’s. Then there’s nuclear plants, subway stations, etc., etc. – this is something he’s talked about quite a bit,” Nider said.


One approach that might especially distinguish a Kerry administration has nothing to do with policies and programs, per se, but is a factor mentioned by many observers and experts—Kerry’s historic record of working with the other political camp to get the job done, even at the cost of alienating some in his own party. Furthermore, much of this bipartisanship has been displayed in Kerry’s previous work against terrorism.

One example came when in 1989, when Kerry, just five years into his first term—and having already made a name for himself in foreign policy—confounded his image as a reflexive critic of President Ronald Reagan.

As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations (itself a consolation prize for being denied a slot on the Iran-Contra committee after he led the initial probe into that scandal), Kerry convened potentially career-ending hearings on terrorist money laundering, drug trafficking and other national security threats. His biggest ally? North Carolina’s Republican Sen. Jesse Helms—arguably the most conservative member of the Senate at the time.

But as a colleague of the opposite party and a personal fan of Kerry’s told this reporter at the time, “We underestimated John when he got up here. We thought that we could never out-think him, but we sure as hell could outwork him. Well, he’s not only smart, he works his tail off. We won’t ever underestimate him again.”

Kerry wielded his congressional oversight powers to seminally address the threat of terrorism long before it was the recognized problem it is. The hearings not only made national news, but they put a blinding spotlight on Republicans and Democrats who not only had ignored the problem but had political ties to financial and other businesses involved in supporting terrorism. Consequently, for three years, Kerry fought intense opposition from vested interests, including senior members of his own party and from both the Reagan and Bush administrations.

“It’s certainly true that Kerry has worked successfully with members of the Republican Party—you always hear about John McCain, but you don’t hear about Jesse Helms,” said PPI’s Nider.

By the end of his inquiry, Kerry had helped dismantle a massive criminal enterprise and exposed the infrastructure of the infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI)—nicknamed the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals International”—and its affiliated institutions. It was a web that facilitated the financial enterprises for notorious international terrorists like Abu Nidal that counterterror officials say was a model for today’s international terrorist financing.

The two volumes of findings from the hearings made for very disturbing reading and opened a window to the world of terrorism never before seen by the public—and overlooked by the intelligence and defense establishments.

A Kerry administration, HSToday was told by several observers it interviewed, would undoubtedly push for more resources for the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), especially its counterterror component, to strengthen its interface with the CIA’s Counterterror Center and the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), or whatever new departments were created as part of a reorganized intelligence community. The little known and quasi-secret FinCEN is the government’s preeminent financial crimes investigative body.

“Stopping the methods used by terrorists to launder their funding and stopping the money flow at the source is big on Kerry’s list of priorities—it really is all about following the money, and [Kerry] hasn’t forgotten what he learned in investigating BCCI,” a Democratic staffer who works on intelligence issues and is close to the Kerry campaign told HSToday.


Kerry’s Secretary of Homeland Security?

Rep. Jim Turner

Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, would certainly be a prime candidate for Department of Homeland Security secretary in a Kerry administration. But notable Washington seers confessed they’d heard nothing to indicate Turner is even in the running.

Turner has taken actions and made proposals that clearly are in line with a Kerry White House. He’s the politically correct choice and, despite the paucity of speculation among observers, would certainly be a logical candidate.

DHS Deputy Secretary

James Loy

DHS Deputy Secretary James Loy’s name emerges from the mouths of most Capitol Hill observers. Politically, his name is a surprise, observers conceded, but logically he’s the heir apparent.

Loy has bipartisan respect and knows DHS better than anyone else. He would also be a potential candidate for DHS secretary in a second Bush administration.

Loy has been raked over the coals for various problems at DHS by Democrats and Republicans alike, but it was Loy, a non-partisan government official, who did the seemingly impossible when he stood up the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) within an almost prohibitively short, congressionally-imposed timeframe. Prior to that, he was commandant of the US Coast Guard, now part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Rand Beers

While he is widely expected to take the position of national security advisor—in which capacity he now acts—or even national intelligence director, should Kerry go that route, Rand Beers would also be a possible candidate for DHS secretary.

Beers served as National Security Council (NSC) special assistant to the president; senior director for intelligence programs; principal deputy assistant secretary; and assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs from 1998 to 2002. From 2002 to 2003, he was NSC special assistant and senior director for combating terrorism.

Richard Clarke

Although he famously stated publicly that he would not accept a post in a Kerry administration, former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke is still on the minds of Democrats and observers as a viable candidate to sit in the chair as DHS secretary or national intelligence director. He’d face stiff opposition from Republicans in any confirmation process. He’s the author of the book Against All Enemies, detailing what he said was the administration’s failure to tackle Al Qaeda before Sept. 11, 2001, and is president of Good Harbor Consulting, located near Washington, DC.

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty is quietly discussed as a candidate for DHS secretary. She is a former nuclear weapons designer and head of the Department of Energy’s Office of Defense Programs, where she directed the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), the government’s elite unit tasked with finding and deactivating nuclear bombs in the hands of terrorists. She served on President Clinton’s National Security Council, handling counterterrorism and WMD proliferation matters.

Gordon-Hagerty also has been talked up for the position of director of the National Nuclear Threat Administration, an agency besieged with problems in securing the nation’s nuclear labs and facilities. Kerry hassaid the security of these installations is of paramount concern.

James Lee Witt

Head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Bill Clinton and widely praised for his work in revitalizing the agency, Witt currently heads James Lee Witt Associates, an emergency planning and management consulting firm based in Washington, DC. He’s also the author of the book Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Disaster into Triumph, which provides lessons on crisis management.


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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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