Obama, McCain Scout High-Tech Homeland Revamp


The new U.S. president will have a crucial role in determining the future of the Department of Homeland Security—an agency that has sparked more criticism than applause over its five-year life span. A sweeping, Congressionally mandated examination called the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review will occur early in the new administration, giving the new president a strong hand in reshaping the agency. This is the first such review of DHS since it was founded in 2003. Such reviews are used to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of an agency, and to plot a new course for improvement.

Homeland security and government-reform experts agree that no matter who wins the presidency, DHS’s management and structure are bound to improve. “President Bush himself never wanted this department. It was forced upon him by a Democratic Congress,” said Elaine Kamarck, a government reform expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School who worked in the Clinton administration. “This was—from the point of view of the Bush administration—an accidental department.”

With hopes high that a new administration will prompt deep changes, the candidates have differing visions of how to proceed. Here is PM’s breakdown of each candidate’s positions on homeland security.

FEMA’s Future
One of the most important flash points in a new approach to homeland security is the handling of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is still is still reeling from its botched response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Obama wants to take FEMA out of DHS and make it a free-standing agency, the way it was until DHS was created. “Obama will professionalize and depoliticize the appointment of FEMA’s director,” says Moira Mack, Obama’s campaign spokeswoman. “Like the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FEMA director will have a fixed term of office to insulate him or her from politics.” The FEMA director would report directly to the president, serve a six-year term and would have professional emergency management experience, she adds.

McCain has also been critical of FEMA and its actions after Hurricane Katrina, but opposes taking the agency away from DHS. “FEMA is broken,” he said during a campaign event earlier this year. “We’re going to fix it.” McCain’s approach would be to rely on private enterprises that have experience distributing goods, services and supplies. “We’re going to hire them,” McCain said. “Don’t rely on some federal bureaucrat.”

Sept. 11 Commission Recommendations
McCain was an original co-sponsor of legislation to create the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) and one of the authors of legislation to implement the commission’s recommendations. Those suggestions include greater screening at public transportation hubs and high-value facilities, and creating biometric identification systems for visiting foreigners. Both candidates’ records support the commission’s view that DHS needs to distribute federal grant money to states and cities in a more effective way. As senators, both have backed a risk-based system that would evaluate the level of risk of each state or district and divvy up grant money accordingly. Homeland Security dollars should not be “a form of general revenue sharing,” according to Obama’s campaign literature. McCain has gone a step further, advocating in Congress for routine audits of these grants to see how the grant money is spent.

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