July 1, 2002
Congress has begun to consider President’s Bush’s proposal to reorganize the Federal government creating a Department of Homeland Security so that we are better able to protect ourselves at home. Already, three things have become clear: homeland security is necessary; reorganizing the government to improve it will be difficult; and homeland security requires a discussion of fundamentals that has really not even begun.
First, greater attention to our security at home is necessary. The President noted correctly in his speech that as far as terrorism was concerned “the first and best way to secure America’s homeland is to attack the enemy where he hides and plans.” But even as those attacks continue, indeed, as a consequence of them, as our enemies seek to show that they are not beaten, we should anticipate attacks at home.
This increased attention to our domestic security is likely to be a permanent change in the way we live. Even if all the terrorists suddenly disappeared, we would need to improve our security. Given our military power, even states that oppose us will have a chance to do so successfully only if they find ways to attack us in addition to military confrontation. That suggests they will attack our population directly. Chinese military officers, for example, have published books and articles arguing for the utility of such attacks and describing how they should be carried out. And whether terrorists or states, our enemies may well have in their hands chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of fearsome power.
Recognizing the threat, Congress has taken the President’s proposal seriously. On occasion, Congressional comment has seemed narrow and too much like business as usual. For example, a member of Congress whose district includes many fishing interests has objected that putting the Coast Guard in the new Department of Homeland Security will cause it to slight search and rescue and enforcing maritime treaties, thus hurting the fishing industry. In general, however, the discussion in Congress has been free of narrow self-interest and squabbling.
Even when the discussion has appeared self-interested, as in the Congressman’s concern about the fishing industry, an important issue about reorganization has been at stake. The Congressman is right. In the past when federal bureaucracies or their components have been combined to form new agencies—for example, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency—one of the components has tended to dominate and give the new agency its character. In reorganizing to increase our security, we will need to make many choices about what we wish to emphasize. Consider the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The President has proposed making FEMA part of the new Department of Homeland Security. Some have objected that as part of the new Department, FEMA will focus on terrorism at the expense of its other duty, responding to natural disasters. If this happens, would we be better off? Or is the threat of terrorism so great that this is a risk we must take?
Such questions show the difficulty of reorganizing the government to increase our security at home, the second thing that these first discussions of the President’s plan has made clear. This is so not only because we may have to make difficult choices about what federal agencies should focus on. The tasks involved in homeland security are so various and complex and affect so much of our life that no one agency can handle them all. However the new department is put together, it will have to coordinate with other government agencies, particularly with the Defense, State and Justice departments, as well as with all the states and a host of local governments. If creating the Department of Homeland Security solves some coordination problem, it will surely create others.
Finally, informed and useful as most of the discussion has been so far, it has focused on narrow legal or technical issues. Much more is at stake. To a degree that is difficult to fix but significant, the extraordinary freedom from government control in our personal and public lives that we have come to take for granted and the openness of our society to new people, ideas and technology has rested on our separation by two wide oceans from potential enemies. Among the historical great powers, only Great Britain, separated from its enemies by the English Channel, has a comparable tradition of personal liberty. The new emphasis on homeland security is a recognition that our special condition of separation has now come to an end. How will this affect our tradition of civil liberty and openness? That is the most important question raised by the need to attend to our security at home, and it is a question that we have not yet begun to answer.
David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.