In the heavily redacted report titled “Information Sharing at the National Operations Center,” the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued some disconcerting findings about the abilities of the DHS National Operations Center (NOC) to perform its mission as the nation’s “nerve center for information sharing and domestic incident management, increasing coordination between federal, state, territorial, tribal, and local governments, and the private sector.” This report, coming as it does on the tail end of the total failure of the federal government to detect and prevent the Christmas Day bombing attempt, represents a serious blow to DHS and its leadership.
Here are two of the key findings from the DHS IG:
(1) “The NOC is negatively affected by organizational issues such as not having requisite authority, ambiguities in its mission, and an unclear chain of command.” As a result, “DHS components routinely provide information to DHS’ Secretary without first informing the NOC.” Even worse, “government officials rely more heavily on entities external to DHS, such as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI’s National Joint Terrorism Task Force, for information and intelligence, because they are operational in nature.” The NOC is largely irrelevant: Other DHS components ignore it, federal agencies ignore it, and many state and local entities try to ignore it.
(2) “The overall focus of the NOC shifts between emergency management, terrorism prevention, and law enforcement. However, following Hurricane Katrina, the NOC began to dedicate most of its resources to emergency management rather than terrorism prevention.” As a result, “everything turned to disaster assistance and recovery, and [personnel] described this change as a ‘pendulum swing effect.’ . . . The center has ‘become an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.’”
These findings, unfortunately, aren’t that surprising.
Let’s begin with the irrelevance of the NOC. One of the biggest challenges stemming from the creation of DHS is the seaming together of the 22 components that were folded into the new department. Given their different systems, cultures, and leadership, no one expected the process to be smooth. Nonetheless, we are now seven years into the project and this report indicates that little to no progress has been made to weave together the information- and intelligence-sharing elements of the key components. Yes, I know it took many years to get the Department of Defense jelled together after its founding in 1947, but I’d like to think that 50 years of technological progress (including the computer) would have made jelling DHS an easier task. How do we expect the federal government to connect the dots when DHS alone can’t figure out how to make sure all of the information from its components gets combined so that its own dots can be connected?
As I noted in my book, Homeland Security and Federalism: Protecting America from Outside the Beltway, DHS needs to cede state and local information and intelligence sharing to the FBI (which has been doing it for over 30 years), so it can focus on fixing what isn’t working internally: the information- and intelligence-sharing of its own seven operational components (Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Coast Guard, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Federal Emergency Management Agency). Instead, DHS used the power of its grant purse to promote “fusion centers” in states and cities — centers DHS hoped would allow it to “own” state and local information and intelligence sharing.
This approach further exacerbated tension with the Department of Justice and the FBI, which had long histories of working with state and local law enforcement and had multiple information- and intelligence-sharing programs and pipelines already in place. The primary tool used by the FBI and state and local law enforcement was the Joint Terrorism Task Force. As the DHS IG report notes (and contrary to the belief of some that JTTFs don’t collect information and intelligence, but merely investigate cases): “The National Joint Terrorism Task Force is a command center representing nearly 30 agencies that collects terrorism information and intelligence from local or regional task forces and coordinates interagency efforts at combating terrorism.” With DHS fusion centers, we now have two entities focused on state and local information and intelligence sharing run by two different federal entities, each of which places burdens on state and local law enforcement in terms of information requests, staffing requests, and other funding. The result of the two-headed federal monster is widespread confusion, redundancy, turf battles, and paralysis analysis throughout the federal, state, and local information and intelligence community.
With this report, we learn that DHS’s NOC is just another aspect of our post-9/11 failures. Unless this problem is fixed, we can be confident more dots will go unconnected, which may lead to a successful terrorist attack in America.
On the FEMAization of the NOC, as I have extensively noted over the last three years (http://www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandSecurity/bg2323.cfm; http://www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandSecurity/bg2256.cfm; http://www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandSecurity/wm1972.cfm; and http://www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandDefense/bg2032.cfm), we have federalized a greater number of natural disasters in every presidential term since 1992. From Bill Clinton’s eight-year average of 89 FEMA declarations per year — a more than doubling of the 43 yearly declarations from 1981 to 1992 — to George W. Bush’s eight-year average of 130 declarations per year to Barack Obama’s first-year total of 108 declarations (with 13 days left in his first year, the number will go higher) despite the absence of hurricanes and earthquakes in 2009, more and more routine disasters like tornadoes, floods, fires, storms, and blizzards are involving federal action. That DHS is using the NOC to help manage these routine natural disasters is stupid, but it shouldn’t shock anyone.
The easy way to fix this federalization of natural disasters is to amend the law to prohibit federal action except for natural disasters that are nationally catastrophic, such as major hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. That would require, however, an end to the gravy train of federal disaster aid that governors have become accustomed to receiving, which allows them to shift 75 percent of the costs of their natural disasters to taxpayers in other states.
I look forward to hearing Secretary Janet Napolitano and her team address the failures in this latest DHS IG report.
— Matt A. Mayer is a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation and president of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Columbus, Ohio. He has served as counselor to the deputy secretary and acting executive director for the Office of Grants and Training in the Department of Homeland Security. He is author of Homeland Security and Federalism: Protecting America from Outside the Beltway.