Law and Public Policy

Justice & Society Program Addresses US Homeland Security Vulnerabilities Through Film Screening

February 19, 2014

The chart above, which shows the Congressional oversight of Department of Homeland Security component departments and agencies, was developed by The Documentary Group, producers of the movie “Homeland Confusion” (click on the image to enlarge).

Fragmented Congressional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the sprawling, inefficient legacy of the consolidation of 22 departments and agencies that formed DHS in 2003. Unless this oversight is fixed, the spider web of jurisdiction will continue to leave dangerous vulnerabilities in the safety of the American people. 

That was the message of a new film that the Aspen Institute Justice and Society Program and the Annenberg Public Policy Center premiered to a packed room in the Longworth House Office Building recently. Homeland Confusion” features interviews with past homeland security officials, including Thad Allen, former commandant of the Coast Guard, and Caryn Wagner, the DHS undersecretary for intelligence and analysis during the Obama administration. Also interviewed are past and present members of Congress, among them Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), a highly respected foreign policy expert and former member of the House. 9/11 Commission Chair Tom Kean and Vice Chair Lee Hamilton, who continue their work on this “last, unimplemented” recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, set the tone of urgency for the film’s plea.

Several highly influential figures, from both sides of the aisle, were in the room for the screening. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) pledged to take on the issue over the next month, and said the film would form part of his package of evidence and arguments. The first Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, told the audience that “you cannot overestimate how important this is.” Former Secretary Michael Chertoff, also featured in the film (and husband to the author of this post), stopped in to lend his support. “It is time for Congress finally to fix this,” he told the Justice and Society Program. Former Congressman John Tanner (D-TN), who participated with Secretary Ridge in a post-film question and answer session, agreed.

The film’s most chilling moments come in its exposition of vulnerabilities to cyber attacks, bioterrorism, and attacks using small boats or planes, all gaps that the film argues are exacerbated by the overlapping jurisdictions of numerous committees in the House and Senate. As Chairman McCaul pointed out at the screening, there is a cyber security bill that has been passed out of his Committee and that the president has said he would sign, but it now remains stuck in the Government Affairs Committee. This is just one example of how multiple committee jurisdictions make it difficult to effectively address the urgent and evolving threats to our nation. 

 “Homeland Confusion” was produced by Annenberg to follow up on a joint Aspen Institute-Annenberg Retreat at Sunnyland report, “Streamlining and Consolidating Congressional Oversight of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.” That report was the product of a high-level Task Force, several of whose members are also featured in “Homeland Confusion.”  The film premiere was also the occasion to release a new report, “Alarms Unheeded,” which traces how the recommendations of the Hart-Rudman Commission, which eerily predicted 9/11 less than nine months beforehand, were neglected by the media and opinion-makers. “The point,” said Kathleen Jamieson of Annenberg at the conclusion of the screening, “is that we have already let too much time pass. We are coming up on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 Commission Report, and the thirteenth of the Hart-Rudman Report. Let’s finish the job.”       

Meryl Chertoff is is director of the Aspen Institute Justice and Society Program.