It has become instinctual to say, “I remember where I was” on that Tuesday morning 20 years ago that shook our nation. The words “Never Forget” continue to ring out as a somber reminder of the fragility of our national security and a commitment always to honor those lives lost. The attacks on 9/11 fundamentally altered the security posture of the United States and the way we engage the world. For the first time since the Cold War, America, as a unipolar power, found itself taking the lead in a global fight against stateless and fanatical actors bent on the destruction of freedom and democracy. It was a task the United States executed with the full might and power of the wealthiest nation on earth. As a New Yorker and a public servant, I will always be proud of the way that our nation came together following 9/11. In the days, weeks, and months following, we saw the true spirit of America in countless acts of courage and kindness. It was America at her best.
The Department of Homeland Security was founded shortly after 9/11 and charged with unifying government efforts to prevent future information and intelligence sharing failures — a task that is more vital now than ever before. Twenty years later, the threat landscape has changed, and we must adapt to it. In 2001, we focused almost singularly on extremist terrorism. While the threat of terrorism is regrettably again a top concern to the nation, the modern threats the U.S. experiences today also stem from adversarial nations—carried to our shores via technologies that did not even exist in 2001. Today, global supply chains are at risk of being cut off by an increasingly aggressive China, cyber actors are operating with impunity on our domestic networks, and hundreds of thousands of unknown and undocumented people are freely walking across our southern border.
It is important to acknowledge that our historic concept of homeland security is predicated on the notion of a singular, violent shock. We must abandon that antiquated perspective and adjust to a long-term, multi-faceted threat landscape. The efforts to break down silos and improve information sharing are still as imperative to homeland security as they were post-9/11, but now the scope of information is much larger and more nebulous. Threats are slow-moving, involve commercial markets and non-martial action, and often exist in the realms of technical jargon, specialized industries, or in the case of propaganda — the very minds of our citizenry.
Technology has ushered in a day-to-day reality few dreamed possible, but with it has come the loss of our strategic geographic advantage because of malicious cyber actors. The homeland has never been more vulnerable to foreign incursions. Adversarial nation-states are only getting more sophisticated as hybrid threats redefine the attack surface through the convergence of technology, information and by leveraging the inherently insecure nature of the internet for their own geopolitical goals.
Our physical interconnectedness has also created new and potentially catastrophic domestic resilience vulnerabilities. Economic security and homeland security are inexorably linked due to the critical role that supply chain resilience plays in our homeland security mission. The emergence of COVID-19 showed us how reliant we are on China for items as basic as surgical masks and how fragile the global supply chain is to logistics breakdowns and goods shortages that continue to reverberate around the country and the world.
Perhaps most illustrative of the enduring challenge of long-term homeland security is that in 2021 the United States finds itself in a multi-polar world while simultaneously having to address a resurgent terrorist threat that now stems from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The potential for violent attacks on the homeland emanating from the very place where we spent two decades working to stamp them out is both maddening and sobering.
But this is exactly why we have a Department of Homeland Security. Instead of indulging in the intellectually lazy undertaking of calling for its demise and decrying its perceived inefficiencies, we must highlight its importance as the center of gravity for U.S. safety and security. This responsibility has never been more pressing. It is the only agency that sits at the intersection of the country’s national security apparatus and traditional economic agencies. Its unified set of authorities allows for an unprecedented public-private partnership with meaningful legal protections that enable real-time collaboration. Its reach, via agencies spanning FEMA to TSA to CBP, has a greater presence and ability to secure America than any other element of our government.
Though politics and policies may change and the department will inevitably have to bear the burden of decisions made outside of the organization, it is vital that we stop the politicization of the department formed and tasked with the singular job of protecting all of us. Threats from cyber incursions, the rise of China, and resurgent terrorist groups show us we need DHS now more than ever. It is high time we cut the political theatrics and let the 244,000 DHS professionals focus on the critical task of securing the homeland.
• Rep. John Katko (R-NY) is the top Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security.