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Event Recap October 9, 2020

Future of DHS Project identifies new threats to the homeland

By Julia Siegel

On Wednesday, September 9, the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice launched the Future of DHS Project Final Report, building on its Key Findings and Recommendations released in August. Atlantic Council Non-Resident Senior Fellows Thomas Warrick and Caitlin Durkovich led the project with input from a Senior Advisory Board of five former secretaries and acting secretaries and the support of over one hundred homeland and national security experts. The Future of DHS Project develops recommendations to inform the 2021 DHS leadership team on the direction of DHS’s mission and how to address key challenges faced by the department.

Following the report release, Forward Defense hosted three panels of distinguished speakers to discuss the future of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in a changing threat landscape. Furthering Forward Defense’s mission to produce forward-looking assessments of the trends, technologies, and concepts that will define the future of warfare, this event explored how the United States can reimagine DHS capabilities to anticipate and defend against emerging nonmilitary threats.

Former National Security Advisor General James Jones launched the event, acknowledging that the anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001 that Friday would mark nineteen years since the founding of DHS. Just as the Future of DHS Report found, he observed that threats to the homeland have transformed from primarily terrorism to a broader range of nonmilitary activities over the years.

The first panel featured Non-Resident Senior Fellows Dave Anthony, producer of Call of Duty, and Max Brooks, bestselling author of World War Z. Forward DefenseDeputy Director Clementine Starling moderated the panel, guiding a conversation on the evolving challenges facing DHS. Mr. Anthony framed the 9/11 attacks as a failure of imagination, arguing that today’s failures of imagination are getting worse and happening more often. The techniques of US adversaries seemed so unlikely when DHS was founded that Anthony likened them to those of “failed Hollywood scriptwriters.” As a result, Mr. Anthony argued, DHS must develop solutions to even the most implausible threats. Mr. Brooks similarly focused on imagination, arguing that the United States has an “imagination gap” with its adversaries stemming from Desert Storm. While the United States saw Desert Storm as a decisive battlefield victory, US adversaries learned the imperative to defeat the United States off of the battlefield using nonmilitary methods. Moreover, Mr. Brooks highlighted that DHS must solve this imagination issue and recognize the importance of soft power, as was noted in Forward Defense’s findings on DHS’s internal morale challenges.

Before introducing the second panel, Mr. Warrick and Ms. Durkovich provided an overview of their report. Mr. Warrick underlined the urgent threat posed by COVID-19, contextualizing the death toll as “thirty-five more 9/11s between now and the end of the year.” To tackle today’s challenges, DHS will need more resources, nonpartisan leadership, and a maintained effort on current missions. Ms. Durkovich added that DHS cannot solve these issues alone. DHS’s ability to share information with private sector partners as well as state, local, tribal, and territorial governments must be modernized.

In a second panel, Washington Post correspondent Nick Miroff moderated a discussion with three former DHS secretaries: Atlantic Council Board Director Michael Chertoff, Janet Napolitano, and Jeh Johnson. Mr. Miroff highlighted the pressing need for discussions of DHS reform, pointing to Acting Secretary Chad Wolf’s controversial “State of the Homeland Address” and whistleblower Ryan Murphy’s revelation on Russian election interference.

They engaged in a discussion on achieving DHS’s mission, with the three panelists highlighting possible steps for a 2021 administration, regardless of the 2020 election results. Sec. Chertoff supported the assessment made in the Future of DHS Report that DHS’s mission must focus on how to protect the homeland from nonmilitary threats. Furthermore, he suggested that DHS act as an analyst and educator, sharing threats with state and local officials. Sec. Napolitano, agreeing with Sec. Chertoff’s assessment of the maturation of DHS’s mission, saw enhanced communication with state, local, and industry stakeholders as the answer. Specifically, the intelligence component of DHS must communicate value-add information to the American people. Similarly, Sec. Johnson highlighted the importance of communicating the broader mission of DHS recognized by the panel to the American people and Congress, who see DHS primarily through the lens of immigration. All three secretaries agreed that immigration issues should be dealt with humanely while enforcing border laws. When asked about DHS’s mission, Johnson emphasized that the next administration must “appoint someone who has an apolitical persona” to restore the department’s nonpartisan nature.

In a final panel on public-private partnership, Ms. Durkovich moderated a conversation with Thomas Fanning, CEO of the Southern Company, Amy Rall, Homeland and Justice Programs Vice President at SAIC, and Jeanette Marfa, Government Security and Compliance Director at Google. The three panelists discussed how DHS and industry actors can better coordinate. Mr. Fanning highlighted the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) as the basis for protecting American critical infrastructure, yet DHS must determine systemically important assets in special need of protection, and then create an environment for information and responsibility sharing. Mr. Fanning further recommended rotating private sector experts into government roles on a private-sector pay scale. Ms. Rall suggested that DHS implement rotations within the department so that future leaders gain experience throughout the department. Additionally, Ms. Rall recognized the lack of agility in DHS procurement as a barrier to improving relations with the private sector. Ms. Marfa was most concerned with adversaries degrading US national critical functions. For future work on the homeland security enterprise, she echoed the Future of DHS report’s preference for building capacity rather than completely shifting current systems.

You can re-watch “Countering new threats to the homeland: The future of the Department of Homeland Security” here or below. To learn the latest on the Future of DHS, visit the project website here. For more information about the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense practice or to read our latest reports, op-eds, and analyses, please visit the website here. You can also sign up for updates from Forward Defense to hear the latest on the trends, technologies, and military challenges shaping tomorrow.

Julia Siegel is an intern for Forward Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.

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