Monday, January 17, 2005

When Judge Michael Chertoff is sworn in as secretary of Homeland Security (DHS), he will face some terrific opportunities to help win the war against terrorism.

DHS is still a work in progress. Merging 22 agencies and 180,000 people into one entity will take many more years to complete. Some former independent agencies, now part of DHS, still long for their independence. In many of those agencies, scores of senior executives are looking to retire instead of spending more years leading what is an increasingly demoralized staff.

Mr. Chertoff can meet those challenges by building a common culture — a culture focused on preventing terrorist attacks. Many inside DHS have other priorities, including preparations for response and recovery from natural hazards. DHS must continue to be a good steward of all its responsibilities. However, the department exists today because radical Islamic terrorists declared war on the United States. Preventing them from attacking anew must be the department’s most urgent concern.

Commentators have argued that the department’s emphasis on terrorism is stifling the responsibilities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That is baloney. FEMA has always been an all-hazard agency, nimble enough to transition from responding to hurricanes one day to fighting the ravages of terrorism the next. I have great confidence in the dedication and professionalism of the employees of my former agency as they confront the complex hazards of the 21st century.

The next secretary’s other significant challenge is confronting the complacency that has settled in throughout the country since September 11. It is my experience that the farther you get from New York and Washington, our citizens and their local leaders increasingly believe terrorists will not strike where they live.

Mr. Chertoff’s communication skills will be tested as he tries to lead the country to understanding the real nature of the insidious war that has been declared against us. After 40 months with no more terrorist attacks and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is hard for Americans to comprehend the patience and adaptability of the radical Islamists. It is difficult for us to believe they are planning another attack far more deadly than the last. The next secretary will need to rekindle the memory of September 11 and mobilize an effective culture of prevention in America.

In Israel, most terrorist attacks are foiled by average Israelis trained in how to recognize terrorists in their midst. Secretary Chertoff must lead a more sophisticated Ready Campaign that impresses upon Americans to do more than buy duck tape and plan family meeting points.

He must educate us on how to recognize indicators that the guys who rented the garage across the street and have been moving large drums inside late at night may mean something is awry.

He must also lead changing the law enforcement culture, which is traditionally focused on arresting criminals after they commit a crime. The whole point of counterterrorism is stopping the terrorists before they strike. So far, DHS has failed to produce doctrine for terrorism prevention. What we need is a definition of what prevention is and guidelines on roles, responsibilities, standards and metrics that can be shared with state and local governments and the private sector. Then we need to assist states and cities, already cash-strapped, in resourcing prevention activities.

Building a national terrorism prevention program will be a difficult undertaking, but it is the priority mission for the Homeland Security Department. The next terrorist attack may well be stopped by a local cop who has been trained and equipped to recognize threats and indicators.

The fundamental reason DHS exists is to prevent terrorist attacks on American soil. History will judge a Secretary Chertoff by whether or not terrorists strike America again during his tenure.

Mike Walker is a managing director of International Capitol Partners, a strategic homeland security and homeland defense consulting firm. He served as acting secretary of the Army and deputy director of FEMA in the Clinton administration.

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