3 Presidents: 3 Homeland Security Definitions

I have testified before Congress on two separate occasions concerning the definition of homeland security.


Both in front of the House and Senate committees on homeland security…I was specifically asked what was my definition of homeland security…due to my profession…and employer…I jokingly replied both times…well actually…I seriously replied with a shit-eating grin…and said “Homeland security is anything Congress and the Administration(s) want it to be, but if the nation’s homeland security is going to be effective…there has to be an agreed-to consensus on what it is.”

15 years later there is no consensus on what “homeland security” entails or consensus on the nation’s homeland security priorities. Three presidential administrations after the Department of Homeland Security establishment…and we still have no agreement on what “homeland security” means.

W. Bush’s Definition

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush was responsible for establishing the first Office of Homeland Security…which morphed into DHS through congressional action. It was a grab bag of approximately 81 entities…everything from animal and plant inspectors to the US Coast Guard. The five years that W oversaw homeland security were a mix of massive natural disasters and continuous terrorism warnings. Not surprisingly, from FY03-F06…airline security was the largest recipient of “homeland security” funding that wasn’t specifically targeted to a federal agency. Surprisingly though…from FY03-FY14…DHS received only 49% of federal “homeland security” funding…as defined by Office of Management and Budget’s annual circular A-11. The close second was the Department of Defense which received approximately 26% of homeland security funding annually. The whole of government, excluding DHS, received 51%…so when the federal government reported what they spent annually on homeland security activities…you saw a significant amount of money doing “homeland security” things…the only thing these “things” had in common is that they met the criteria of what Bush’s 2002 National Homeland Security Strategy defined as “core homeland security missions.”  Basically this included ‘Intelligence and Warning,’ ‘Critical Infrastructure Protection,’ ‘Federal Security Operations,’ and ‘Law Enforcement and Investigations.’…Bush issued a second homeland security strategy in 2007…but OMB just kept these original core missions…it was easier that way. Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the final years of Bush’s second administration focussed on combining natural disasters with terrorism as a focal point for DHS. In the 2002 strategy, there was no mention of natural disasters being a homeland security priority…even though FEMA was a significant portion of DHS from the beginning. In the 2007 strategy, natural disasters were mentioned in the nation’s homeland security mission and goals. Finally, by the end of Bush’s second term…there had been no overarching DHS authorization…the Homeland Security Act of 2002 had established DHS, and the Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act and the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Act (these two acts were combined in PL 110-53) had addressed parts of DHS (like the annual DHS preparedness grants and disaster response)…but there remained no authorization for all the things DHS did daily…there was no consensus on what DHS was supposed to be or what it was supposed to do.

Obama’s Definition

If you can find any instance where President Obama uses the words “homeland security” and he is not referencing the department or the secretary…I will give you some money. Where Bush loved to use the term “homeland security”…Obama seemed to be almost allergic to it. He just never talked about homeland security as an overarching policy. He talked about DHS missions…immigration, airport security, domestic terrorism, and such…but he didn’t talk about homeland security as a whole. Whereas the Bush administration wanted homeland security to be everything…it seemed Obama wanted it to be nothing. One of the first things he did related to homeland security was to combine the Homeland Security Council and Staff (Bush had established it) with the National Security Council and Staff. Where Bush had issued two national homeland security strategies…Obama issued single national security strategies which included a few paragraphs about homeland security. Congress kept appropriating DHS funding…DHS kept executing its missions…disasters struck…terrorists (both domestic and international) attempted attacks…but the idea that homeland security was a policy area that deserved its own focus was missing. Homeland security was now something we talked about…the media reported on it…we had grown accustomed to it…like the cliche concerning porn…we knew what homeland security was “when we saw it.” Homeland security had gone from being the belle of the ball to the forgotten (and fugly) cousin we took to the prom when no other girl would say yes.

Trump’s Definition

Trump has a single homeland security focus…immigration. Terrorism is only international and it is addressed through unconstitutional travel bans and increased military operations overseas. Trump has to be shamed to address anything related to domestic far-right extremist terrorism…and all other DHS missions are just there to be addressed when necessary. To understand Trump’s definition, all one has to do is look at his FY18 budget request…vast majority of proposed increases to homeland security funding is focussed on immigration…and all the federal assistance given to states and localities are to be cut, reduced, or require matching funds. If it doesn’t address ‘illegal immigrants’ or banning of Muslims…it isn’t worthy of his or DHS’ time. SecDHS Kelly has voiced his support of Trump’s idea that homeland security is one thing and one thing only…homeland security is about border security and border security only.

Congress’ Definition

Congress has a vote as the federal branch that authorizes, appropriates, and conducts oversight on the executive branch…Congress still exerts its authority, annually, by appropriating funds to DHS. As an example…both Bush and Obama at different times in their budget requests had proposed single (and large) homeland security block grants for states and localities. The idea was that states and localities know best what they need to spend on homeland security…they have their individual priorities. Coastal states naturally focus on disasters and large cities like New York focus on terrorism. Congress never approved large homeland security block grants…instead Congress authorized approximately 8-15 different homeland security grant programs…the number varied by fiscal year. Congress repeatedly votes on what is the nation’s “homeland security” definition…there is still no single overarching DHS authorization.

Why This Matters

This matters because 15 years after 9/11 and 12 years after Hurricane Katrina…we still don’t really know what homeland security is…all we know is that the past three presidential administrations define and use homeland security in their own way…which is their prerogative…and Congress keeps appropriating homeland security funds as they see fit. Rarely, if ever, has Congress and a presidential administration agreed on a homeland security definition. It’s not about the words in the definition…but in the policy…and the priorities…and the concept of what it means to “secure the homeland.”

If I were to be asked again about my definition of homeland security…I would repeat that I am in no place to tell you what it should be…but I can tell what it has been, what it is now, and how it has never been agreed-to…and that is still the number one homeland security issue facing this nation. Until “we”…the policymakers and the policy executioners agree on what homeland security is…homeland security is going to continue being nothing more than a name of a department and a concept that everyone thinks they know…but we don’t…no one has a clue.

*No links or sources were harmed in the writing of this blog because I am the source…I have the C-SPAN footage to prove it.



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