The Department of Homeland Security has many roles. Two of its most important are coordinating the 22 federal agencies that make up the department ensuring coordination and cooperation and of course terrorism prevention.
According to Richard L. Skinner, the Inspector General charged with monitoring the Department of Homeland Security, the National Operations Center of the DHS is unable to do its job, and the DHS spends too much time on disaster management and not enough about terrorism prevention
These assessments are presented in a redacted report from the DHS Office of Inspector General released in November and entitled “Information Sharing at the National Operations Center.”
“However, following Hurricane Katrina, the NOC began to dedicate most of its resources to emergency management rather than terrorism prevention. Many NOC staff contend that this shift in focus is detrimental to NOC intelligence and law enforcement functions,” the report added.
The center’s mission is “to facilitate information sharing and operational coordination with other federal, state, local, tribal, non-governmental, and private sector agencies, as well as to provide situation awareness to senior DHS and White House leadership,” the report said. The Center does this by operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and is separated into two sections: Intelligence and Operations.
The Operations side focuses on law enforcement and emergency management activities while the Intelligence side focuses on classified [secret] information – using that information to support and inform the Operations side.
Despite a legislative mandate to coordinate the country’s homeland security functions, the inspector general’s (IG) report found that the NOC must “politely request” cooperation and information from other agencies. The NOC “is functional only in name,” the report stated.
“According to the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, NOC is the principal DHS operations center and provides situational awareness for the federal government and for state, local, and tribal governments as appropriate, during a natural or manmade disaster or act of terrorism,” the report said.
“The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 also requires the NOC to ensure that critical terrorism and disaster-related information reaches government decision makers,” it added.
“One NOC official said the center is operational only in name, and does not have the capabilities or authority to direct DHS component resources or personnel,” the report stated. “He added that the NOC is responsible for coordination and must politely request information from DHS components.”
One reason the NOC functions in name only is because of an apparent focus on disaster management rather than terrorism prevention. The report found that following Hurricane Katrina, the NOC has “become an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA],” which has “diminished” its ability to respond to terrorist threats.
“Following Hurricane Katrina, the NOC’s main mission focus shifted to emergency management,” the report found. “One NOC desk officer told us that after Hurricane Katrina, everything turned to disaster assistance and recovery, and described this change as a ‘pendulum swing effect.’”
Another reason the NOC is “unable” to do its job is a schism between the Operations and Intelligence sides of the Center. A bureaucratic problem in many areas of national and homeland security, this split between intelligence and law-enforcement professionals has paralyzed the NOC, according to the report.
“Despite the need for Operations Side and Intelligence Side personnel to work in tandem to achieve all-hazards NOC readiness, a disconnect exists because of an unclear chain of command and the inability of the Operations Side to obtain higher-level security clearances,” the report stated.
In fact, the Senior Watch Offices (SWO) that manage the NOC are not receiving the intelligence they need to coordinate the nation’s activities and inform senior DHS staff.
“As stated earlier, the SWOs manage and supervise the activities of the NOC and are responsible for maintaining awareness of all intelligence and operations being managed by DHS and NOC components,” the report said.
“The SWOs are also responsible for briefing DHS senior leadership regarding potential or actual incidents, both domestic and international that may affect national security,” it added.
“We determined that some SWOs were not receiving the necessary information to brief DHS senior leadership on emerging issues,” the report stated. “Not everything the SWOs need to receive is being passed through the correct channels. Another desk officer said the Intelligence and Operations sides play in different worlds, and 90% of what I&A [Intelligence and Analysis] knows, the SWOs do not know.”
A third problem at the NOC, according to the IG report, is an inability to hire qualified people, forcing the agency to rely heavily on private contractors. This reliance on contractors has forced the NOC to use privately supplied employees to fill senior positions. One contractor fulfills seven NOC functions, including one so secret it had to be redacted from the report.
As it states: “Some contractors may be performing inherently governmental functions. For example, one contractor has program manager responsibilities and oversees seven NOC functions: the fusion desk, the Tracker, the Knowledge Management Officer, the [redacted] representative, the Secretary’s Briefing Staff, the chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear desk, the explosive incidents desk, and the state and local law enforcement desks.”
This reliance on contractors accounts for $11.2 million of the NOC’s budget, or 62 percent of its total funding.
These deficiencies, along with out-of-date technology and a lack of standard operating procedures to guide employees’ actions, led the DHS inspector general to conclude that the NOC was “unable” to successfully do its job.
“Organizational, administrative, infrastructure, IT, and staffing obstacles continue to hinder NOC information sharing and collaboration,” according to the report.
“Federal laws such as the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 require the NOC to serve as the principal DHS operations center and provide situational awareness for the federal government and for state, local, and tribal governments as appropriate,” the report added.
“However, because the NOC does not possess the operational capacity or authority to require DHS components and other watch centers to channel information through the NOC Watch to key decision makers, it is unable to meet these requirements,” the report stated.
The inspector general recommended that key Obama administration officials, particularly DHS leadership, provide more effective support to the National Operations Center.
“To complete its mission successfully, the NOC needs support from key executive department officials and stakeholders,” the report added. “To this end, DHS leadership needs to emphasize the NOC’s importance in enhancing information sharing efforts throughout DHS, the federal government, and with state and local entities and regional fusion centers.
This is just another example of how this administration has taken its eye off the terrorist threat. There hasn’t been an adequate monitoring of the DHS, giving it priorities, and ensuring that the department has been achieving its priority goals.