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Homeland Security: Can Jeh Johnson handle agency's big challenges? (+video)

Obama nominated Jeh Johnson Friday to lead the Department of Homeland Security. At Defense, he was in the middle of a host of sensitive policy issues facing the Obama administration. 

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On the flip side, one major thing going for Johnson as DHS chief is that he has already been vetted and approved once by the Senate for his defense post, several observers said.

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He’s also used to cracking the whip, having led a crackdown on unauthorized leaks in the Defense Department, much criticized by whistleblower groups.

If confirmed, Johnson faces significant challenges that will require all his Defense Department experience and more. Under Obama’s watch the DHS has wrestled with the proper balance in it mission – how much to focus on counter-terrorism versus how much on the broader hazards like hurricanes and floods, homeland security experts say.

Getting that balance right will require balancing political pressure for, say, tougher border security – with the need for deep investments that can respond to natural disasters. Johnson will need to be good at wooing companies that own much of the nation’s critical infrastructure to participate in defending it, the experts say.

Ironically, the DHS – more than a decade after it was created by merging nearly two dozen federal agencies in the wake of 9/11 – is still trying to define its role in defending the nation against terrorism. After the Boston Marathon terrorist bombing, the first such event since 9/11, the nation found itself listening mostly to local police chiefs, FBI representatives, and the president, while the DHS was responding in a coordinating role out of sight.

“The DHS was really invisible after the Boston terror bombings,” Stephen Flynn, director of the Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University. “This was the first terror attack like this since 9/11 and nobody thought to ask – where’s homeland security?”

“Obviously he’s got a strong background in weighty issues of the war on terror,” Dr. Flynn says of Johnson. “What will challenge him at DHS is that most of the heavy lifting in protecting the nation is really at the state and local level – and in somehow getting the private sector that operates critical infrastructures that are particularly vulnerable to go along with measures needed to increase security.”

If confirmed, Mr. Johnson faces a department with a squeaky tight budget at a time of high demand.

“The challenge to reduce the US deficit has placed a strain on the DHS's, as well as other government departments', ability to properly fund all critical agencies,” concluded an analysis last month by the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. “Although not to the point of dysfunction, the agencies are forced to operate at a lesser efficiency and with fewer personnel.”

Some agency divisions, like the DHS Directorate of Science and Technology, are responsible for developing and deploying new communications and sensor technologies to defend the nation. Yet that office’s budget has been heavily cut, Flynn notes.

Right now, for instance, the US needs new radiological alarms and sensors at the nation’s ports with the old, first generation equipment deployed after 9/11 wearing out. The DHS is also still struggling with a congressional requirement to deploy biometric sensors at the nation’s airports and other exit points. But how to do that effectively on a tight budget is a big question.

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