NPR logo Obama's Homeland Security Looks A Lot Like Bush's


Obama's Homeland Security Looks A Lot Like Bush's

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Wednesday, July 29, 2009. Seth Wenig/AP Photo hide caption

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Seth Wenig/AP Photo

Based on what was billed as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's big policy speech today at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, there won't be any major shifts, at least initially, in the Obama Administration's approach to homeland security.

Yes, she may do away with the oft-ridiculed, color-coded threat advisory created under the first Homeland Security secretary, Tom Ridge. But she may not, depending on what the task force she assigned to the project comes back with.

On a range of other issues, the Obama Administration's approach sounds very much like the prior administration's, only more of it.

For instance, Napolitano sang the praises of counter-terrorism intelligence being shared between federal, state and local agencies through arrangements known as fusion centers.

She said:

Fusion centers are and will be a critical part of our nation's homeland security capabilities. I intend to make them a top priority for this department to support them, build them, improve them and work with them.

She would essentially be building on the strategy begun by the Bush homeland security officials who were big believers in the centers as well.

She also talked up the Obama Administration's efforts to begin homeland security not within U.S. borders but overseas.

DHS, together with the Department of Justice, State and others, is brokering agreements with our allies in Europe and around the world to share information on air travelers in advance of their travel, to gather critical biometric information so we know who is in our country, to scan baggage and cargo effectively while still facilitating legal trade and commerce.

But this, too, is an extension of the approach begun by the Bush Administration. Napolitano appeared to acknowledge as much as her remarks continued:

The idea here, to paraphrase former Secretary Ridge, is that our physical United States border should be our last line of defense, not our first. So together with the Department of Justice, we have now forged agreements to prevent and combat serious crime with 13 international partners. There's more to do on this front.

Bush homeland security officials would often warn about complacency, especially as 9/11 receded further into the past.

Napolitano sounded just like her predecessors Ridge and Michael Chertoff in that respect too. And she talked about educating the populace about how to be the eyes and ears of counter-terrorism and also how to respond to the aftermath of man-made or natural disasters.

Another excerpt:

I'm often asked if complacency is a threat in the United States, and I believe the short answer is yes. But I think a better question is this: Has the United States government done everything it can to educate and engage the American people? The answer there is no. For too long we've treated the public as a liability to be protected rather than an asset in our nation's collective security. And this approach, unfortunately, has allowed confusion, anxiety and fear to linger.

This "public as a liability" idea appeared to be a shot by Napolitano at the Bush Administration. But as someone who covered the creation of the department and followed it closely for several years, the line strikes me as something of a cheap shot since the Bush homeland security officials often encouraged the idea that the public was the first line of defense. Again, it was seen as the eyes and ears.

There was one definite difference between Napolitano and her predecessors, however: her president has a rapport with the rest of the world, especially the Arab and Muslim part of it, that Bush didn't have.

She said:

Beginning at his Inauguration and continuing most recently at his historic speech in Cairo, President Obama has begun a different kind of dialogue with the Muslim and Arab worlds, recognized there is far, far more that unites than divides us.

In the end, however, her speech was definitely more of a validation of the Bush Administration's homeland-security approach than a break with it.