FEMA’s relationship to DHS drawing attention and debate

One of the most important decisions President-elect Obama will face when his administration takes over DHS is whether to leave FEMA as a part of DHS, or remove it from DHS and make it a cabinet-level agency, as it was before DHS was formed.  Members of Congress, stakeholders, and prominent organizations are taking sides on the issue, but it’s not clear yet what stance the Obama administration will take.

[UPDATE 05/15: CQ Politics reports that on Wednesday 5/13, Secretary Napolitano stated that the Obama administration supports keeping FEMA within DHS; but one day later, Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) said that he will continue his push to remove FEMA from DHS, despite opposition from the administration.  Give some credit to the dedicated folks at FEMA who’ve had to endure the uncertainty of this long-running debate, because apparently it’s not over yet.]

House: Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wrote to President-elect Obama on Dec. 17 to demand the removal of FEMA from DHS, declaring that its placement in the larger agency impedes its ability to serve as a “quick response” agency.  In response, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) Rep. wrote to Obama Dec. 19 strongly disagreeing with Oberstar, saying that FEMA should remain in DHS, but that Obama should appoint someone to lead FEMA who has a strong relationship with Obama.

Senate: Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Disaster Recovery Subcommittee, has stated that she doesn’t recommend removing FEMA from DHS at this point, but she’s open to the concept and wouldn’t resist it if the new administration made the decision to make the change.  Landrieu told Homeland Security Secretary-designate Janet Napolitano that “there were still some senators that felt strongly about it staying where it is, some that were kind of open to change and others that would really recommend that it be made independent”, and that “it should be open to discussion.”

Update 01/15/09: Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), the chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), the ranking Republican member, urged Janet Napolitano at her confirmation hearing not to remove FEMA from DHS.

Bush Administration: The Bush administration made the decision to include FEMA in DHS, and still supports that decision.  Michael Chertoff has publicly stated that he opposes removing FEMA from DHS, and has cautioned his successor from making any major changes to DHS.

Obama Administration: The Obama administration has not taken a public stance on either side of the issue.  Senator Landrieu said Napolitano is “testing the waters” with Congress to find out how members of Congress feel about the issue.  Landrieu emphasized that Napolitano didn’t say removing FEMA from DHS is something the Obama team is considering.

Update 01/15/09: At Janet Napolitano’s confirmation hearing, she didn’t take a stance on either side of the issue, instead promising to actively look into the issue.  But her other testimony about FEMA indicated strong support both for FEMA and for increasing FEMA’s cooperation with the rest of DHS, regardless of where FEMA ends up.

Update 02/25/09: The DHS Inspector General weighed in with a report titled “FEMA: In or Out?“, in which the ID recommends keeping FEMA in DHS.

Other Organizations and Stakeholders: A month ago the International Association of Emergency Managers officially endorsed removing FEMA from DHS (Representatives Oberstar and Thompson publicly disagreed on the issue at that time as well).  In addition, the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, weighed in on December 4 with a memo supporting Thompson’s position to leave FEMA as part of DHS.  A number of other organizations and stakeholders have cautioned more generally against any major reorganizations at DHS, even though they may not have addressed FEMA specifically.

Update 01/08/2009: 3 fire service organizations – the IAFC (International Association of Fire Chiefs),  IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters), and Congressional Fire Services Instituteweigh in against removing FEMA from DHS.

  • The IAFF is affiliated with the AFL-CIO (labor is expected to have some influence in the strongly Democratic Congress), and according to the IAFF web site, “The IAFF is one of the most active lobbying organizations in Washington; its Political Action Committee, FIREPAC, is among the top one percent of the more than 4,000 federal PACs in the country.”
  • So expect these 3 organizations to carry some weight, and for Congress to resist if the Obama administration pushes to separate FEMA from DHS.

Potential Conflicts: In Oberstar’s letter to Obama he declared that his committee has jurisdiction over FEMA and that making FEMA independent would have strong support in Congress.  However, the overlapping nature of Congressional oversight of DHS makes it likely that other Congressional Committees, including the House Committee on Homeland Security that Thompson chairs, will lay some claim to FEMA oversight as well.

Expectations (My Take): Expect continued public discussion and debate, but expect Obama to take some time before making a decision.  And regardless of what his final decision is, don’t expect a change to FEMA any time soon.  Obama tends to be a consensus builder, and feelings are strong enough on this issue that even if Obama decides to remove FEMA from DHS, he’ll probably go slow, taking time to build a broader base of support for the change before implementing it.

UPDATE 12/24/08: It’s important to note that one of the reasons there is resistance to making FEMA independent of DHS again is that some important entanglements between FEMA and DHS have already been established in terms of politics, funding, and already enacted legislation (which was written to apply to DHS as a whole).  It could get pretty messy to separate them at this point.  For example, allocation of funds for the DHS Homeland Security Grants Program (HSGP) is performed by the FEMA Grants Directorate, and moving that function to DHS could cause confusion and funding changes all the way down to the state and local level.  So if FEMA is ultimately pulled out of DHS, expect some ripples and unintended consequences in unexpected areas.

Update 02/25/09: At this point, I’d say the momentum is clearly on the side of keeping FEMA in DHS, and I’m going to stop updating this post.  If this changes and the momentum seems to swing the other way, I’ll publish a new post.

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Report: Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism

The bi-partisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism released a long-awaited report on December 4th about the current state of the WMD threat against the U.S..  The report received fairly wide coverage in both the main-stream press and on the Internet.  I’ve summarized information from a number of sources here; I haven’t read the full report yet myself, but I’ll update this post again after I’m finished reading it.

Summary:

The report:

  • States that the odds are greater than ever that the world will see an attack using a biological or nuclear weapon in the next five years.
  • Criticizes Bush administration domestic and foreign policy.
  • Offers wide-ranging recommendations on controlling biological agents and containing nuclear proliferation.
  • Offers recommendations for Congress to solve problems with oversight and funding.
  • Singles out Pakistan as the top security priority for the United States.

Recommendations:

Here are many of the key recommendations in the report:

  • Overall Terrorist Threat:
    • Work with Pakistan and other countries in the region to eliminate terrorist safe havens through military, economic and diplomatic means.
    • Secure nuclear and biological materials in Pakistan.
    • Counter and defeat extremist ideology.
  • Biological Terrorism:
    • Call an international conference of countries with major biotechnology industries to promote biosecurity.
    • Strengthen global disease surveillance networks.
    • Press for universal adherence to the Biological Weapons Convention.
  • Nuclear Terrorism
    • Constrain a nascent nuclear arms race in Asia.
    • Take steps to prevent Iran and North Korea from possessing uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing capabilities.
    • Set strong penalties for violators who withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
    • Strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency.
    • Employ further counter-proliferation efforts.
    • Work with Russia to secure its nuclear materials.
  • Presidential Oversight:
    • Create a new post in the White House to oversee government efforts to prevent a WMD attack.
  • Congressional Oversight:

    • Empower the Homeland Security panels in the House and Senate as the sole oversight committees for these issues (as opposed to the 16 House committees and 15 Senate committees that share jurisdiction on these issues now).
    • Create a new Intelligence Appropriations Subcommittee to fund both national and military intelligence.
      • From CQ Politics: Congress ignored similar recommendations from the original 9-11 commission, which issued its report in mid-2004.

Criticisms:

There has been some skepticism and criticism of the report, and a down-playing of the report conclusions, both by homeland security veterans and members of Congress.  Much of the criticism stems from the reports’ tone of urgency and lack of emphasis on explosives and other low-tech threats.  As mentioned in Homeland Security Watch, “There’s a noticeable demotion of chemical and high explosives in the WMD threat embraced by the report.”

Official Reactions:

Senate: In a hearing Thursday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee indicated a willingness to consider legislation to strengthen safety and security at private and federal laboratories that work with deadly biological pathogens.  Read here for more details on the committee hearing.

UPDATE 12/22: Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Joseph Lieberman (ID-CN) and Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME) announced plans to introduce legislation to tighten oversight of high containment laboratories around the country that could handle deadly biological pathogens.  Click here to view the press release.

Bush Administration: Despite the report’s criticisms of US policies, the White House welcomed what it said was proof of Bush’s strong security record.  “Under President Bush’s leadership, extensive progress has been made on securing the world’s weapons of mass destruction and protecting our citizens from a WMD attack,” White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.

Obama Administration: There is some expectation that many of the reports’ recommendations will be accepted and implemented by the Obama administration.  As reported by CQ Politics: “Several of the commissioners have advised the Obama campaign or transition, and several recommendations square with Obama’s policy views. Among the panel members, Wendy Sherman is a national security “team leader” in Obama’s transition, and Richard Verma serves on his defense transition team.” The Boston Globe reported that President-elect Obama will probably implement the recommendation for creating a position of WMD anti-proliferation chief at the White House, citing three unnamed Obama advisers.

Overall Summary:

The report will probably influence homeland security policy and funding for the next 4 years.  Diplomatically and militarily, expect an increased focus on Pakistan.  In the U.S., expect greater focus and spending on defense against biological attacks, including new legislation and rules to prevent pathogens from falling into terrorist hands through labs.  Consider preparing plans and grant requests to improve detection of and response to biological attacks.  Expect an increase in R&D funding for technology to detect and identify biological threats and verify adherence to nuclear and biological non-proliferation agreements.

Links:

Additional articles and posts about the report: