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Political Scene

Homeland Security, Broadly Defined
David Applegate

Legislation to establish a federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is perhaps the largest piece of unfinished business that members of Congress left behind as they made their way back home for the final campaign swing. Debate has stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate over the question of workers’ rights for the estimated 170,000 employees who will be transferred into the DHS. The massive new department — the first to be created since the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1988 — would swallow up 22 existing agencies in whole or in part, reshaping the federal government on an unprecedented scale and carrying an annual price tag that could run as high as $42 billion. If the labor dispute is resolved during a post-election (“lame duck”) session, the department could be in business before the end of the year.

What will this governmental reorganization mean for the geosciences? Viewed narrowly, the new department — with its mission to close gaps and vulnerabilities in responding to terrorism and other homeland security threats — will have little impact. With the notable exception of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), none of the principal geoscience-related agencies are among those to be incorporated into the DHS, and its research programs seem likely to focus primarily on technology development related to cybersecurity and bioterrorism.

Viewed broadly, however, the department, and the homeland security issue in general, will have profound effects on the geosciences. And it should.

Geoscientists both in and out of government make significant contributions to a secure homeland: enhancing energy security by developing and assessing resources, running hydrologic monitoring networks critical to ensuring the security of the water supply, developing geospatial databases that are in use for a wide range of security-related purposes, and building a foundation for mitigating losses from natural hazards. Agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are playing key roles, but the administration may not recognize these agencies’ homeland security contributions because they will remain external to DHS. Setting aside the likely budget constraints imposed by the war on terrorism (and possibly on Iraq), the impacts of DHS on the geosciences will largely depend on how well geoscientists and geoscience agencies make the case for their relevance to this national challenge. Our community has a great deal to contribute, but that can’t be our little secret.

An all-hazards approach

In the legislation currently on the table, FEMA would form the core of the new department’s Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response, joined by a number of emergency preparedness offices taken from other departments. The same directorate would also oversee medical supply stockpiles and public health emergency response functions.

The geoscience stake in FEMA largely revolves around the agency’s floodplain mapping, loss estimation modeling, pre- and post-disaster mitigation activities, and role as the designated lead agency for the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program. Once FEMA is buried within DHS, how will programs fare that may have little to do with combating terrorism but everything to do with making people’s homes more secure?

For years, USGS has struggled to carry out a national mission that extends beyond the responsibilities of its parent department for public lands. Although congressional supporters recognize that role, USGS has struggled to nurture the same recognition of its broader role among the leadership of the Department of the Interior and the White House Office of Management and Budget. Natural hazards programs within DHS can avoid this same fate only if DHS leaders see the value in building the nation’s resilience to all extreme events, whether natural or human-induced. Such an all-hazards approach to security, if well coordinated with programs at USGS, NOAA and other state and federal agencies, could revitalize the nation’s commitment to natural hazard reduction.

There is some reason for optimism that the linkage can be made. The Senate Government Affairs Committee’s case statement for the new department emphasizes the importance of “preserving the critical non-homeland security work currently being done by the agencies and offices that will be consolidated into it.” The statement specifically mentions that FEMA “must still respond swiftly to natural disasters — in fact, its work in helping communities prepare for and recover from disasters will only be enhanced within the new department.”

Learning from disasters

One of the most promising opportunities for integrating geoscience expertise into homeland security is not related to DHS at all. While the bill to create the department languished, Congress passed another piece of legislation intended to address problems with the World Trade Center investigation. On Oct. 1, President Bush signed the National Construction Safety Team Act of 2002. House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) introduced the legislation after Science Committee hearings revealed significant obstacles to investigators seeking to learn lessons for future building design.

This new law gives the National Institute of Standards and Technology authority to conduct investigations in much the same way that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) does for more typical airplane crashes. Although clearly motivated by the terrorist attacks, the bill applies to all major building disasters, including those caused by natural events. For some time, experts have been calling for an NTSB-like approach to natural disasters. At the opening forum of the Congressional Natural Hazards Caucus in July 2000, William Hooke, a senior policy advisor to the American Meteorological Society and former NOAA official, urged the senators to foster a national “learning by experience.” He noted how different our response to natural disasters is from our response to airplane crashes, where the NTSB investigates to ensure that lessons are learned because “we don’t want this to ever happen again.” The emphasis after natural disasters is still dominantly “rebuild it just as before,” the result being repetitive losses (see Geotimes, March 2001). The Construction Safety Team Act is a start toward an even broader post-disaster assessment mandate with stronger interagency coordination to look at ground motion, code performance, critical infrastructure and environmental impacts.

Science for security

Largely due to the efforts of the House Science Committee, DHS will include a Directorate of Science and Technology. Unlike the other directorates, however, this one does not swallow up any large federal programs or agencies but rather a collection of smaller ones. It is largely aimed at identifying research and development needs related to homeland security, coordinating research within the department and with other federal agencies, and advising the Secretary of Homeland Security on science and technology issues.

As with other aspects of the department, much of the directorate’s focus is on bioterrorism, and the legislation emphasizes research coordination with the National Institutes of Health. The directorate would also work to improve technology for cybersecurity, border security, interoperable emergency response systems and intelligence analysis. These emphases reflect priorities established by a National Research Council study and Boehlert’s own view that “like the Cold War, the war on terrorism will be won as much in the laboratory as on the battlefield.” Because this directorate will be the principal pipeline for scientific input into homeland security, it is critical to ensure that geoscience contributions external to the department are recognized. Effective intergovernmental panels, particularly a reinvigorated White House National Science and Technology Council, must be put in place for that to happen.

The Department of Homeland Security could be a major opportunity for the federal government to adopt a broad approach to domestic security and a broad approach to hazards, seeking to follow practices that will make the nation more resilient to all threats. By broadening our notion of homeland security, we can broaden the benefits to society.


Applegate is director of the Government Affairs Program for the American Geological Institute and is the editor of Geotimes. E-mail

For more information on this legislation, please visit the AGI Government Affairs Program.

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