Putting the Homeland into Homeland Security

The Obama Administration announced today that it is reorganizing White House homeland security operations. Aside from creating a vague and kooky new “Global Engagement Directorate” in the White House to “drive comprehensive engagement policies” at home and abroad (whatever that means), it’s predictable stuff. The biggest change: The old White House Homeland Security Council staff will be axed/merged into a bigger Uber National Security staff.

Kleiman just asked me whether this was good news or bad news. I told him yes.

The good news: This was a system that desperately needed integrating. For years, we’ve had two parallel White House staffs, one for homeland security, one for national security. We also had two Cabinet-level councils — the Homeland Security Council and the National Security Council. Obama has decided to merge the two staffs but keep the Cabinet-level Councils separate. That makes some sense. Cabinet officials meet in different groups all the time for different issues, and these “principals’ meetings” are the primary action-forcing mechanisms to get various bureaucracies moving. But the separate staffs have always had problems, and merger has long been a consensus “least-bad-alternative,” advocated by the nonpartisan Project on National Security Reform and the not-so-nonpartisan Center for American Progress

The bad news: the new streamlined system could end up taking too much homeland out of security. Two major dangers:

Danger #1: Homeland security gets integrated but downgraded. The new National Security staff has a gigantic and unprecedented span of control, covering everything from Pakistani instability and North Korean nuclear proliferation to California’s “resilience policy.” No way homeland security rises to the top of the priority list with that kind of competition.

Danger #2: Not enough people “speaking state and local” in the White House. The press release notes that the Cabinet-level Homeland Security Council will be maintained as the “principle venue for inter-agency deliberations.” This is horizontal integration — ensuring that Washington’s own federal agencies play better together. But homeland security also requires more robust vertical integration between Washington and state and local agencies (as well as private sector leaders), who are the eyes and ears before disaster strikes and the first helping hands afterward.

Unless Washington puts more homeland into homeland security, these and other efforts will fall short.

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at foreignpolicy.com, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.