Michael Barkun: A New Era of Rational Thinking at DHS?

We present commentary today from Michael Barkun, author of the forthcoming Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11 (April 2011). In the book, Barkun demonstrates that U.S. homeland security policy reflects significant nonrational thinking, and he offers new recommendations for effective–and rational–policymaking. In this post, he addresses changes at the Department of Homeland Security since the arrival of Janet Napolitano as Secretary.–ellen

Janet Napolitano’s announcement on January 27 that the Department of Homeland Security was going to drop the color-coded terrorism alert system didn’t really come as a surprise.  While I was writing Chasing Phantoms, I was aware that she had set up a task force to examine the alert system, and you don’t set up a task force if you think the status quo is satisfactory. Her decision is interesting for two reasons.  First, the new system, which will be phased in this Spring, will consist of more specific alerts, sometimes directed at the public, but sometimes communicated only to government agencies.  The reason this is interesting is that the color-coded system was originally conceived as a mechanism to alert government agencies, not as a means of communicating to the general public.  However, the first homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, quickly changed it into a graphic device for warning the population – something its architects did not have in mind.  So the new system really partially returns alerts to their original function.

The other reason the dismantling of the system is interesting is that it’s another indication of Secretary Napolitano’s willingness to depart from policies advanced or favored by her predecessor, Michael Chertoff.  Secretary Chertoff was not only a strong proponent of the color-coded alerts; he was also personally invested in two other policies that Janet Napolitano has tried or managed to kill.  One is REAL ID, a system to standardize driver’s licenses across all the states, turning them into something very like a de facto national ID, legislation she wishes to see repealed.  The other is Chertoff’s ambitious and expensive plan to create a physical and technological barrier blocking the U.S.-Mexico border.  Napolitano opposed that when she was Arizona governor, and after a brief period as DHS Secretary, she has killed it.  Of course, it’s not unheard of for new department heads to change course, but it’s relatively rare for a new secretary to depart from three such conspicuous policies in so short a time.

While all these developments might be attributed to personal differences, there is also a systemic factor: In the period after 9/11, an enormous number of initiatives were taken, many of them without much thought to their implications, possible unintended consequences, or competing claims for resources.  Now, in a calmer climate, these programs are being examined and, in some cases, brought to a close.

Michael Barkun is professor emeritus of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and is a former FBI consultant in domestic terrorism cases. He is author of six books, including Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement and, forthcoming in April 2011, Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11.