Chertoff speech addresses FEMA’s role in DHS

The following was a speech given by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Dec. 3, 2008, before a gathering at Johns Hopkins University.

Secretary Chertoff: Now, from my standpoint, as I look forward to the next year, of course a new Administration is taking office. One thing that means for me is that I will not have to live through another hurricane season. I’m used to spending the last four years over the summer, particularly in August when everybody else is kind of kicking back and thinking about how to best enjoy the summer holidays, I’m used to carefully watching the weather reports to see if a cyclone is forming somewhere in the Atlantic and the Caribbean which looks like it’s going to spoil my holiday and, of course, this past year, as is not uncommon, I spent much of my time during the summer down in the Gulf dealing with the anticipation of the hurricane and the aftermath of the hurricane.

But before I get into the meat of my speech, I want to make a couple of remarks on some related but distinct topics. First, I want to encourage all of you who are not already working at the Department of Homeland Security, and I know some of you are, to consider the department as a potential future career choice.

If you are motivated to help other people, if you’re motivated to defend the country, we have a very wide range of options, whether it’s working for Transportation Security, Customs and Border Protection, Science and Technology. I think if you look at what we do, almost any interest, whether it’s an analytic interest or an operational interest, can find a place at the Department of Homeland Security and a very meaningful mission, and as you listen to my remarks today, I think you’ll find perhaps some glimpse of what it is that we do.

Second, I’d like to take the opportunity to, before I get into the core of this speech, just look back a little bit and reflect on the last eight years and the presidency that is about to come to an end in January 20th. I’ve been privileged to serve this president for six out of the past eight years, first for two years as head of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice where we dealt with 9/11 on September 11th and during the months afterwards, and then during my four years as Secretary of Homeland Security. The only period in the last eight years I didn’t serve in the Administration was my two years as a federal judge.

I have to say that looking back on these eight years, as Director Davis said, it is quite remarkable that we haven’t been attacked. Now, I always touch wood, this is not really wood, it’s laminate but maybe that’s wood, because we’re not totally at the end yet, but I think we’ve gone far enough to say that, looking back on the record, it speaks volumes.

Now, when I say we haven’t been attacked, I should amend that. We haven’t been successfully attacked. We have been attacked. There have been efforts made to attack this country, whether it was the Shoe Bomber in December of 2001 or the August 2006 airline plot directed at airline flights from Britain to the United States or some of the other plots that you read about in the newspaper that are currently the subject of various trials, but the fact is none of these have been successful, and I don’t think that’s an accident. I think it is a direct result of policies that this president put into force and that this Administration implemented, whether it was reorganizing the intelligence community to taking action against the enemy overseas in the caves in Afghanistan and the laboratories in Afghanistan where they were planning their work, whether it was enacting the Patriot Act or putting into effect a system for detecting conversations among terrorists.

All of these things made a big difference in minimizing and reducing the risk of a successful attack. Had we not done these things, had we shrugged our shoulders and said, boy, that was a really bad attack on September 11th, let’s empanel a grand jury and indict a few people, I’m pretty confident there would have been attacks successfully again and again and again, and I think, as we contemplate the last eight years and there’s certainly been a lot of criticism about things in hindsight that people would have done differently, I do think that you have to reflect on a surpassing achievement of this president which is keeping the country safe.

I also have to say that the president, whether you agree or disagree with every decision he made, has done so with the interests of the country at heart and in a manner that upholds what I think is the honor and dignity of the office.

But let me now turn to the core of what I want to talk about which is how we manage the kinds of crises at the Department of Homeland Security that emerge or that might emerge from time to time. Of course, a most common crisis we’ve had over the last eight years has been a natural disaster because we haven’t had a successful terrorist attack since September 11th, and this past year, as I indicated, was another year of substantial natural disaster activity, whether it was the wildfires in the Fall of 2007 in California, an unprecedented flooding in the Midwest along parts of the Mississippi River in Iowa and other places, tornadoes in the Midwest, and, of course, Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike. All of these posed enormous challenges to the local populations and to the Federal Government.

In each of these cases over the last year, the point of the spear and the federal response supporting local and state government was the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, and I believe in each of these cases, it’s generally acknowledged FEMA acquitted itself very well. That’s, however, not merely a tribute to a lot of the rebuilding work that’s been done with FEMA but it had a lot to do with partnership, partnership with state and local authorities with whom we have planned and worked over the past few years, partnership with our own law enforcement personnel, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, Air Marshals from TSA and Screening Officers from TSA, all of whom have come to work to support FEMA in doing the job of providing a federal voice and a federal capability when people in states and localities are in distress.

Just to give you some examples, Customs and Border Protection provided security for the transit of life-sustaining goods in many of these disasters and also provided aerial assets that allowed us to survey the damage. TSA supported 20 FEMA commodity distribution locations in the area of Harris County, which is where Houston is, in Texas, putting 366 employees into the field, doing not their normal day job but supporting FEMA by providing hands and boots to distribute food to people in need. Our Coast Guard performed myriad land, maritime and air search and rescue missions.

So in each of the cases that FEMA was maybe the best-known example of DHS acting in support of disaster relief, FEMA was supported by all of the elements and all of the powers of the Department of Homeland Security, and I think there are three lessons that come out of this last year in terms of the way we worked.

First, when it comes to any kind of an incident, crisis incident, whether it’s a natural disaster or a manmade disaster, planning and preparation are the essential precondition of doing a good job. Gustav was a result of years of planning with the state and local authorities and the ability to make sure, even when an unexpected event occurred, that we were able to improvise because we had a sound foundation in terms of our ability to have a plan and to have trained and exercised the plan.

Second great lesson from 2008 is what I call the three Cs: cooperation, communication, and coordination, which at all levels of government are essential if we are to respond effectively to a disaster.

And finally at the federal level, I daresay that the integration of our preparedness and response functions under a single roof, the Department of Homeland Security, has been a major contributor to the ability of FEMA and all of the other agencies to get together and make sure that we were able to provide a very sound and effective response capability in, whether it be fire, water or wind, natural disasters across the country.

Now, why am I bringing this up? Because, as we go into the transition, I do see there are some who call for the removal of FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security, and I think I want to take this issue on directly because it has arisen, it arose before the department was formed, it’s arisen, I think, throughout the department’s existence, and it has now, of course, a subject of some discussion again.

I begin by observing, of course, that FEMA is -- that DHS is a young organization. It’s a little over five years old and even in this five years, there’s been a lot of reorganization. But the core of the argument made about FEMA is that somehow FEMA’s involved with consequence management, dealing with the response, and DHS, in other respects, is dealing with preventing or protecting against a response, and that if these are different functions, that therefore they ought to be under different roofs, and I really beg to differ with that. I think that is a profound misunderstanding of how one plans and prepares and executes in the face of a possible emergency and an actual emergency because the truth is emergencies don’t come neatly packaged in stovepipes and if there’s any lesson we’ve learned in dealing with terrorism or dealing with any other crisis, it is that stove-piping is the enemy of efficient and effective response.

Let me be more specific. The fact that FEMA and other components of DHS have had an opportunity during times of rest to plan, train and exercise together and to build capabilities that are capable of crossing jurisdictional lines has allowed us to have the kind of capabilities to support an emergency that would not be the case if we were in different departments.

Simply put, what we do is when we get our communications equipment on our aircraft, we train our operators whose day job is perhaps patrolling the border or dealing with maritime incidents with the Coast Guard, we train them to support a response if the need for response comes upon us. You could not do that if we were located in different departments. So the ability to plan, train and exercise together is a function of our ability to be integrated together.

A second reason why FEMA fits well in the department is because, once we have an event and it’s necessary to quickly call upon other agencies, the quickest way to do that not by reaching to another department of government and having a mission assignment and requiring the other department to then come in and lend assistance, but it’s to have the ability of the Secretary to immediately order assistance to be rendered in all of the elements and capabilities of the entire Department of Homeland Security. This is not merely my opinion. Two people in a position to know because they’ve watched the department since its formation and because they were responsible for its creation in significant part have also endorsed this view.

Citing FEMA’s successful response this year to a number of disasters, the current U.S Senate Homeland Security Chairman, Senator Joe Lieberman, and the Ranking Member, Senator Susan Collins, had this to say in a joint letter they published in yesterday’s New York Times, actually today’s New York Times: Supporting FEMA’s Continued Participation as Part of DHS. “Lives are saved when skills, resources and missions are united, not disbursed.”

This, by the way, is a lesson we’ve learned in national security. When the Department of Defense was first created, you know, the Navy didn’t want to be in it, the Marine Corps didn’t want to be in it, the Army didn’t want to be in it. Everybody viewed it as a diminution of their traditional prerogative as a stand-alone department, and they resisted the full integration of the department all the way into the late 1970s, when the consequence of failure to integrate was, of course, a disastrous result in Desert 1, the failed effort to rescue the hostages during the Carter Administration, and it was as a direct result of that that the Goldwater-Nichols Act in the next decade cemented a quality of jointness that brought all the elements of power together, and what we’re learning now, by the way, is increasingly that in our foreign activities, our national security activities, we need greater integration between the warfighter and the rebuilder than we’ve had before, and I would argue that, just as we’re learning that lesson overseas, we should not be unlearning it here at home.

Finally, I observe this. Many of those who argue that FEMA ought to be pulled out of the department do so because their vision is that, where FEMA is about natural disasters and hurricanes and not terrorism and that’s what the rest of DHS is about. But need I remind you that one of the critical elements, if there were a serious terrorist attack, would be the need to have an effective response and a response not to a weather event but a response perhaps to a dirty bomb or multiple improvised explosive devices or a biological weapon, and in order to have that capability, FEMA needs to continue to be a consumer of intelligence and expertise that the entire department brings to the issue of combating terrorism.

But let me stand back even from the narrower issue of FEMA’s participation in the department and look more generally at the role of the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security as the incident manager when there’s an incident that cuts across agency lines and has national implications.

When DHS was created and shortly after it was created, the president issued a Homeland Security Directive known as HSPD-5 which put the Secretary in the position of the operational incident manager in the case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster of significant consequence. The purpose of doing this was to recognize that while the White House guides policy, the operational planning, training and execution needs to be in a department and the conception was that the Department of Homeland Security wouldn’t control the other departments but that there would be someone who would be saddled with a central responsibility to make sure all of the components of the operators were being synchronized and working well together.

This is, of course, a reflection of what they call the Incident Management System which has been adopted in many states as their way of dealing with incidents at the state level. It’s a recognition of the fact that again crisis management and consequence management are part of a spectrum, that when you’re dealing with a potential terrorist attack, for example, you are simultaneously looking at how you prevent further attacks, how do you protect against the attacks that are underway, and how do you respond and mitigate the attacks that have occurred. If you don’t bring all these elements together, what you have is a disconnected response and it’s that kind of disconnection that causes the kinds of problems that are often complained about when there’s a terrorist attack and a failure to effectively respond.

That is really, in my mind, one of the core missions of the Department of Homeland Security. What happens when you don’t have someone to coordinate the incident across the entire spectrum of prevention, protection and response? Well, I would argue that that’s what we saw in Mumbai, India. Again, this is not my opinion. This is what was reflected in the Wall Street Journal a couple days ago when they wrote about a lack of communication between the fire responders and the emergency responders, the police and the military dealing in the hours and then days after that initial assault in Mumbai.

The failure to coordinate all of those elements led to delay and uncoordination and resulted in criticism directed against the government by the citizens of India itself. This is not again my opinion. I’m not commenting. I wasn’t there. This is what the papers are reporting the citizens of India have indicated. What you come to recognize is without the kind of incident management and coordination that we are building at DHS, joint planning, joint execution, cutting across the lines of the different operators, without that kind of capability, it’s easier to have a disconnected response than to have a coordinated and properly connected response.

Now let me give you some examples of what happens when we do do it the right way, when we do have properly coordinated response on an operational basis. In July 2006, you may recall that there were questions about the safety of Americans living in Lebanon during the war between Hezbollah and Israel. Working in a coordinated way with CBP and TSA and the State Department, using this incident management construct, DHS was able to facilitate the repatriation of Americans who had to leave Lebanon literally under the stress of fire fights in order to make sure they were not engulfed in the struggle between Hezbollah and Israel.

A month later, in August 2006, when the U.K. aviation plot directed at flights from Britain to the U.S. was revealed, we were able to coordinate TSA, again the State Department, Defense, and Customs and Border Protection, in a concerted response so that we could, within less than eight hours, completely transform the way we dealt with flights and airline security to prevent any element of that airline plot from coming to fruition.

And to use a different example, in June 2007, we had two successive emergencies that were resolved through incident management. One was a scare that turned out to be unfounded that we might have foot and mouth disease that had entered the country through swine. For those of you who don’t know, that is a potentially calamitous livestock disease. DHS and its components worked with the Department of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center to immediately assess whether this was a terrorist incident, to develop a common situational picture of what was going on, and to swiftly determine that the matter was not a threat. Had it been a threat, we would have then put into effect certain protocols at the border and certain medical protocols which would have mitigated the damage.

A day after we resolved that problem, we had the London and Glasgow terrorist attacks, culminating in the effort to blow up the airport in Glasgow, and we were again able to coordinate a response with Customs and Border Protection the Transportation Security Administration, and other elements of national power. That is the essence of incident management the ability to wield a lot of different organizations and bring them together to work in a coordinated way, and I think that is the harvesting of the seeds that were planted when this department was first founded.

So, in conclusion, always welcome words to those who are listening to a speaker, as we look ahead to the challenges of the future, I believe that we have built a firm foundation in incident management and in integration with the department, a foundation that was, I believe, part of the original conception by those who framed this department.

Now, it’s not a fully-built and polished structure. We’ve laid out the basic architecture and I believe and I’m confident my successors will continue to strengthen and elaborate on this structure in a way that will ultimately result in making this country safer. No disaster is ever going to be painless and easy. That’s why they call it a disaster and not a picnic. But we can make it less difficult, less costly, and, most important, less deadly if we are able to respond quickly, effectively, and in a coordinated way, in the manner that I think we’ve become able to do over the last several years, and so I wish my successors well as they continue to carry out the most important mission you can have as a public servant, which is protecting the citizens of this country against any kind of harm, whether it be manmade or natural.