07/19/2013 11:24 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

A Geologic Perspective on DHS

Trained as a geologist (and now practicing homeland security law), I tend to think in terms of geologic time and processes. As I am in Aspen, CO for the Aspen Security Forum thinking about the resignation of DHS Secretary Napolitano, I see similarities between the history of our planet and the life of the Department. (Yes, I know that 10 years is not exactly geologic time but work with me here.) I am reminded especially of the theory of punctuated evolution, which describes how evolution proceeds with long periods of relative stability interspersed with irregular periods of rapid change. The analogy is apt considering the short periods of dramatic change that have impacted the Department's otherwise steady evolution. It will be up to the next Secretary to consider whether continued progress should be punctuated with similar types of seismic events.

The first dramatic shift occurred when DHS was stood up in 2003 under Secretary Tom Ridge, integrating 22 federal agencies and bringing together tens of thousands of operational and subject-matter experts and contractors to solve new problems and look at issues from a fresh perspective. The next punctuated moment came in 2005 with Secretary Michael Chertoff's initiation of the Department's Second Stage Review (2SR) resulting in a major reorganization of DHS, including a strengthened Office of Intelligence and Analysis tasked with ensuring that intelligence is coordinated, fused, and analyzed within the Department to provide a common operational picture, to provide a primary connection between DHS and the intelligence community as a whole, and to act as a primary source of information for state, local, and private sector partners. Under Secretary Napolitano, there have been many subtle and important changes to immigration processing, border security and cybersecurity. But, a dramatic change began to occur in 2010 when she led the completion of the first-ever Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR), establishing a unified, strategic framework for homeland security missions and goals. As a result of the operational and policy and planning changes instituted by the three Secretaries, the fourth will take the reins of a highly-evolved Department with significant challenges still left to address.

The overarching challenge for the next Secretary will be responding to the looming security threats and managing the homeland security enterprise responses, which must include Federal, state and local actors. To this end, there are a short list of challenges that the new Secretary can anticipate and make plans to address. The first comes from immigration policies and laws. As we approach the next election, the focus on immigration will increase, regardless of the actions of Congress, and DHS will have to consider immigration-related issues including change management, system engineering and the management of services and technology involved. Second, the next Secretary will need to coordinate the protection of our nation's critical infrastructure - systems that are owned by government but mostly by the private sector - from increasing threats from Nation-States, criminal organizations and hactivists.

Although Secretary Napolitano's focus on these issues and the Obama Administration's Cybersecurity Executive Order are important steps in meeting this challenge, the next Secretary will need to coordinate a national cybersecurity defense. The third challenge is to define the scope of the Department's "homeland security" mission which is distinct from national security but yet an integral part. Most stakeholders agree that the need for DHS is greater today than it was at its inception. Today, the Department manages a broad group of components including the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the United States Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the United States Customs and Border Protection and others. But, a decade after its stand up, integration of these components is still in progress, and significant challenges remain due to the extreme congressional oversight by over 100 committees, a restrictive budget environment and a wide range of responsibilities.

Thinking about these issues from the Colorado plateau, I am reminded that geologists take a practical and deductive approach to challenges, basing observations and phenomena to analogies found in current time and then determining how this was preserved in the geologic record. To do this, geologists rely upon many other fields of science, geography, biology, chemistry and combine them to gain a better understanding of the rocks and geologic record. It will be useful for the next Secretary to take a similarly broad and comprehensive view, considering other related fields and history, as (s)he addresses challenges and opportunities in a new way, from a new perspective. Of course DHS Rocks!