On the anniversary of 9/11, the 21 years that have passed since the horrific attack on our country reminds us that we still have a lot of work to do, especially to protect our country from catastrophic global threats. I had the honor and privilege of serving President Bush and Homeland Security Advisor Governor Tom Ridge in the White House after 9/11, a dramatic and uncertain time to say the least. After Governor Ridge left Pennsylvania to take charge of Homeland Security at the White House, he and our team were met on day one by a burgeoning anthrax attack. We had far more questions than answers and quickly realized that our global catastrophic risk management capabilities were seriously deficient.
At the time, I was Deputy Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, and as part of my responsibilities, I spent time in the Situation Room for a year being briefed daily on national security threats related to the homeland.
My friends often asked me what “scared the most” and I always answered: biological threats.
All these years later, the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded all offshoots of our nation and the world that is still unprepared to act decisively with a well-planned federal response to catastrophic global events. The enormous human suffering and economic costs should be a clear call for global catastrophic risk management strategies to become an achievable and properly funded national priority.
In the original plan for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security – and in the authorizing law – was the creation of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA). The vision was for HSARPA to perform the necessary research and transform that research into the necessary solutions to our homeland security challenges, based on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) model, which has been instrumental in informing the best team national security around the world. DARPA is known to be above all visionary. It is also organized in a way that allows the team to have not only management roles, but also strong funding and flexibility in procurement to maximize their success. However, for a myriad of reasons, HSARPA falls far short of this model.
Many think tanks, legislators, and former DHS employees have pointed out that HSARPA has no particular focus. While biodefense should involve components of HHS and DOD, DHS should be an important part of this threat matrix team, and HSARPA should be seen as a leader and critical link.
With his recent “First Annual Progress Report on Implementing the U.S. Pandemic Preparedness Plan“, the Biden administration cites among its priorities increased investment in research and development for biodefense. Additionally, Congress is currently considering ways to refine the mission of the DHS Office of Weapons of Mass Destruction. But — to date — there has been a lack of attention to HSARPA and the challenges within the Science and Technology Directorate.
First and foremost, HSARPA should conduct a clear mission statement of HSARPA that assesses the current threat landscape and provides direction, vision and a new mission statement for HSARPA. The projects are financed but not within the framework of a specific strategy. Developing long-term professional management strategies and sourcing strategies, similar to DARPA, is also key to future success. And of course, Congress will have to provide far more funding if we are to achieve the goal HSARPA intended by our DHS founders.
I still view DHS as a new federal bureaucracy that needs to be able to adapt based on lessons learned. The concept of creating HSARPA was a good idea in 2001, but we need to do more as a country to make its goals a reality so we can better protect the American people.
Ridge Policy Group associate Mark Holman served as Deputy Homeland Security Assistant to President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks.