Skip to main content

Challenges and Issues

Chapter Five
Challenges and Issues

Homeland security is a sensitive issue. Just about every decision made about homeland security—from a small town's debate over whether or not to increase the local fire station's budget to the federal government's creation of the DHS—has its critics. In general the scrutiny under which homeland security policies are developed is a good thing. As flaws and weaknesses in current policies are exposed, better policies are developed. However some of the fundamental questions surrounding America's ability to respond to terrorism are so controversial that they may never be resolved. Awareness of these issues is vital to understanding the challenges facing homeland security officials.

Government Secrecy

For example one of the key tenets of homeland security strategy is to keep terrorists guessing about the specifics of security measures. Whether it is detailed information such as building plans and guard schedules, or general information such as which potential targets the government is trying hardest to protect, the sentiment among homeland security planners is that the less information terrorists have the better.

One controversial aspect of this mindset is a growing aura of government secrecy in regard to homeland security issues. Many of the specifics about U.S. vulnerabilities and the security measures designed to protect them are being kept secret from the general U.S. public. Laura Parker et al., in USA Today, report that since the September 11 attacks: "Hundreds of thousands of public documents have been removed from government Web sites. Other public information has been edited, and access to some materials has been made more difficult."81 These documents include maps and descriptions of security procedures at power plants, dams, gas and oil pipelines, chemical storage sites, government buildings, and national monuments. Homeland security officials argue that such information would obviously be of use to terrorists.

But both the federal and state governments have also been hesitant to divulge the specifics of many attack-preparedness efforts and emergency-response plans, information that many people think should be available to concerned citizens. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, at least forty states have proposed changes to their open records laws to keep evacuation routes, emergency-response plans, and emergency health procedures secret. "We seem to be shifting to the public's need to know instead of the public's right to know,"82 says Gary Boss, director of a government watchdog group.

Beyond concerns about open government and the public's right to know, many critics feel that government secrecy may undermine the public's confidence in homeland security efforts. This was evident in many people's criticism of the DHS's Homeland Security Advisory System. Although the DHS moved the nation to orange alert—indicating a high risk of terrorist attack—several times following September 11, little information was divulged regarding the reasons for the increased alert or what specific steps the federal government takes at this increased alert level. "The public isn't served if the government issues terrorism alerts without telling Americans what to do," write the editors of USA Today. "That doesn't empower Americans. It scares them."83 The government must therefore strike a difficult balance between keeping the public informed on the one hand and not inadvertently benefiting terrorists on the other.

A (Largely) Civilian Framework

Another area in which the government must strike a balance is in how involved the military is in homeland security efforts. The military's role in homeland security is a complex issue. Historically the military has been reluctant to involve itself in the nation's domestic affairs because it takes away from their international duties. For example Captain Aaron Weiss of the U.S. Marine Corps writes that: "Preoccupation with … peacetime duties," including homeland security measures, "will leave the active-duty military unfit to engage a real military opponent."84 Furthermore the United States has traditionally maintained a clear separation between military and civilian authority, in order to help prevent political leaders from using military force to impose their will, as tyrants have done throughout history. The Posse Comitatus Act, passed by Congress in 1878, prohibits the military from engaging in domestic law-enforcement activities or security operations, except in certain situations such as when the president declares a national emergency.

Involving the military in homeland security efforts is, therefore, a controversial issue. In fact the term homeland security came into widespread use in part because of this controversy, evolving largely as a counterpart to the term national security. Homeland security—gathering intelligence on terrorist threats and preparing for and responding to terrorist attacks on U.S. soil—is a largely nonmilitary effort. National security—dealing with threats posed by other countries—is the military's realm. However the distinction between homeland security and national security is far from absolute. The two concepts often overlap, and there are at least two areas in which the military is an active part of America's attack-response framework.

The first is the National Guard, a component of the U.S. military that has traditionally served in a civilian support role. The Army National Guard and Air National Guard are composed of part-time soldiers, more than sixty thousand of whom are on active duty in homeland security operations. "The Army National Guard," writes policy analyst Jack Spencer, "maintains over 3, 000 armories around the country, while the Air National Guard has 140 units throughout the United States and its territories."85 Since September 11 the Air National Guard flies combat air patrols twenty-four hours a day searching for stray aircraft—if they find any, they have the authority to escort it to a landing strip, or if necessary, shoot it down. "If a situation similar to September 11 repeated itself," write guardsmen Jon Power's and Robert Stephenson, "the pilots would be in a position to prevent another act of terrorism."86 Immediately after September 11, the National Guard was assigned to augment police efforts in New York City as well as to aid U.S. customs officials at the borders linking the United States to Canada and Mexico. They were also assigned to guard the nation's ports, bridges, and nuclear power plants in response to elevated DHS alert levels. The National Guard could also be called on to support local response efforts in the event of terrorist attacks.

The other major area in which the military is involved with homeland security efforts is in dealing with WMD. Protecting against chemical and biological weapons was a priority for the military long before it became a major homeland security concern. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is the agency within the Department of Defense responsible for developing solutions to counter WMD threats. Much of the research conducted by the DTRA benefits both military and homeland security operations.

Limiting the military's homeland security operations to the National Guard and DTRA research helps to prevent the United States from becoming a police state in which liberty is sacrificed for security. Americans want to be secure from terrorism without feeling stifled by security measures. America's leaders must balance the need for government secrecy and an increased military presence in everyday life with the need to maintain an open, democratic society that Americans cherish.

Difficult as this may be, the nation faces even greater challenges in implementing some of its most basic homeland security goals such as providing better training and equipment to first responders. The problem, in a word, is money.

Funding First Responders

"America's first line of defense in the aftermath of any terrorist attack is its first responder community—police officers, firefighters, emergency medical providers, public works personnel, and emergency management officials," states President Bush's National Strategy for Homeland Security. "Nearly three million state and local first responders regularly put their lives on the line to save the lives of others and make our country safer."87

However, in order to respond effectively to WMD attacks, emergency workers need specialized training and equipment that most cities do not have the means to provide. For example, as Ratnesar, in a Time magazine report puts it: "Hospitals say they can't train enough employees to effectively spot and treat victims of biological attacks; fire departments can't afford to buy the haz-mat suits needed to guard against deadly germs."88

Lack of funding is a major problem. While hundreds of millions of dollars in security funding was provided to state and city governments, legislation to provide billions more stalled in Congress due to concerns about the federal budget and the nation's ailing economy. Baltimore mayor, Martin

O'Malley, voices a common view that America's cities need more help from the federal government: "You cannot fund an adequate level of homeland security on local property taxes and the proceeds of firehouse bingo."89 O'Malley expresses a common opinion that funding homeland defense is a federal, rather than a local or state, responsibility.

While there are many local leaders calling for more funding for first responders, there are also critics on the other side of the issue who worry that the United States may be spending too much on homeland security efforts. Their question How much spending is enough? is a difficult one to answer. "We can spend ourselves into bankruptcy," says Randy Larsen of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security. "We just can't defend ourselves against every attack."90 Again the challenge facing America's leaders is to strike a balance—in this case between adequately funding homeland security efforts while ensuring that concerns about terrorism do not put undue strain on the economy.

Beyond First Responders

The challenge of managing homeland security efforts becomes more evident when one moves beyond first responders to the broader mosaic of state and federal agencies responsible for homeland security. As the National Strategy for Homeland Security puts it, homeland security "is an exceedingly complex mission that requires coordinated and focused effort from our entire society—the federal government, state and local governments, the private sector, and the American people…. A national strategy requires a national effort."91 A nationwide effort is more crucial to America's attack-preparedness and emergency-response efforts than any other aspect of homeland security (such as intelligence gathering or border control).

Serving as a bridge between local first responders and higher levels of services are the nation's city and state offices of emergency management (OEMs), which provide the leadership needed to coordinate first responders' efforts. At the federal level the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP), part of the DHS, works with city and state OEMs to enhance the abilities of first responders by providing terrorism-response training and technical assistance.

In addition to providing management and leadership, state and federal agencies work with first responders in the event of an attack, serving as the backup and support to the responders on the front lines. For example, one of the most difficult problems that local and state governments are likely to face in responding to a terrorist attack—especially one involving WMD—is a shortage of medical facilities, supplies, and personnel in the face of large numbers of attack victims. Several agencies and programs exist specifically to supplement a community's resources in the event of such a disaster.

The American Red Cross, though not part of the government, works closely with local governments during times

of major crises. The Red Cross would be a major part of medical-relief efforts in the wake of a major terrorist incident, supplementing the efforts of local public health authorities with emergency medical treatment and supplies. Beyond emergency medical relief, the Red Cross also provides food, shelter, and mental health services to disaster victims.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also aids in medical-relief efforts, primarily its OEM. Under the OEM's National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), the federal government can dispatch groups of medical personnel designed to provide emergency medical care during a disaster or other emergency. Since terrorists are more likely to target large cities, the HHS may employ its Metropolitan Medical Response System (MMRS) instead of, or in addition to, the NDMS. The purpose of both NDMS and MMRS teams is to support local public health efforts, but MMRS teams receive more specialized training in dealing with WMD attacks. In fact the MMRS system includes four geographically dispersed teams officially known as the National Medical Response Teams for Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Coordinating It All

Responsibilities for homeland security are dispersed among more than 100 different government organizations, dozens of which would play significant roles in responding to a terrorist attack. In the aftermath of September 11, the government was widely criticized for the complicated, seemingly haphazard array of agencies and programs charged with protecting America from terrorism. The DHS was created, in part, to help coordinate the diverse array of local, state, and federal programs that make up America's emergency-response system. This part of the DHS's mission is certainly an ongoing effort. The DHS, Congress, the president, and state and local government officials are constantly working to improve the government's terrorism-response efforts, and new homeland security initiatives regularly make news headlines.

The DHS incorporates twenty-two other federal agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Border Patrol that operated more or less independently of one another prior to September 11. Because the DHS is a cabinet-level agency, the White House is able to work directly with it to manage homeland security efforts. The creation of the DHS has greatly helped to reduce—though not completely eliminate—the bureaucracy, redundancy, and confusion that sometimes characterized U.S. counterterrorism efforts prior to September 11.

For example, before the creation of the DHS, FEMA was the principal federal agency responsible for disaster response and assistance. FEMA's disaster-response capabilities have included attack-response duties for decades. According to one official who had a hand in creating the DHS:

Under the Reagan administration, unseen by the public, FEMA had a strong national-security capability for preparedness to deal with the consequences of a war at home. All of that was lost when the Soviet Union came apart, and that side of FEMA was simply abolished. Now we're back to needing this kind of capability, and putting FEMA in a new department offers the opportunity to get there.92

FEMA's attack-response responsibilities overlapped with those of several other agencies. For example the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) and National Office of Domestic Preparedness (NODP) also shared responsibility for responding to terrorist attacks but had no direct connection to FEMA.

Instead of operating behind the scenes, as it did during the Cold War, FEMA is now part of the DHS and has a major role within that evolving department. The DHS is comprised of five main divisions, or directorates—Border and Transportation Security, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Science and Technology, Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection, and Management. The DHS's Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate is the

one charged with attack-response efforts, and FEMA is the primary agency within this directorate, with agencies such as NIPC and NODP under its lead. FEMA's mission continues to be to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and facilitate recovery from disasters. As such FEMA would play a major role in coordinating the efforts of all federal agencies and programs in the event of a terrorist attack.

Achieving a Unified Response

While the DHS has achieved some success in making sure that federal agencies coordinate their efforts, it still faces the challenge of getting state and local governments to follow the federal government's lead. As DHS director, Tom Ridge, admits: "The federal government has no first responders."93 It must therefore rely on state and city governments that often choose not to comply with DHS requests. For example, in spring 2003, the DHS announced that the nation was at orange alert due to increased risk of terrorist attack, and Ridge called on many state governors to deploy the National Guard to protect bridges and railroads. But most governors refused because they felt there was no specific threat to their states. The DHS must deal with the mayors of America's major cities as well. In April 2003, again citing the possibility of terrorist retaliation for the invasion of Iraq, Ridge asked Philadelphia mayor, John Street, to close a road near Independence Hall where the Liberty Bell is kept. Street refused, citing tourism and traffic concerns.

Thus one of the biggest challenges facing the DHS, as journalist Alex Fryer explains, is "ironing out the role of federal government and how it relates to the cities and states that carry out the war on terrorism."94 The federal government does not have the constitutional authority to assume control over a local police station, firehouse, or hospital. If there is a disagreement between federal and local officials, says Ridge, "then it's my job to communicate personally with whoever is objecting and figure out a way to make them do it otherwise."95

The challenge the DHS faces in working with state and federal governments is part of the broader trend in which

homeland security concerns are forcing different levels of government to work more closely together than ever before. Although homeland security is a national issue, attack preparedness is very much a local concern. As Seattle mayor, Greg Nickels, puts it: "When a disaster occurs, people do not call the White House. They call 911."96

Achieving a unified homeland security response, coordinating the various federal agencies responsible for homeland security, and managing the controversial issues of government secrecy and military involvement in homeland security are all ongoing efforts. These issues will never be fully resolved to everyone's satisfaction, just as the American homeland will never be completely secure. Nevertheless U.S. leaders continue to seek the best possible solutions to these difficult issues, just as they strive to maintain security in the face of unpredictable terrorist threats.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Challenges and Issues." Lucent Library of Homeland Security: Responding to Attack: Firefighters and Police. . 19 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Challenges and Issues." Lucent Library of Homeland Security: Responding to Attack: Firefighters and Police. . (January 19, 2019).

"Challenges and Issues." Lucent Library of Homeland Security: Responding to Attack: Firefighters and Police. . Retrieved January 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.