Subscribe to RSS - DHS


Police and private sector should take European threat seriously


WASHINGTON—Local law enforcement agencies and private-sector security officials should pay close attention to a bulletin issued by the State Department on Oct. 3, warning of terrorist threats in Europe.

Ridge at it again: Advocates overhauling DHS

Thursday, September 23, 2010

As the first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge knows how the fledgling agency works and he also knows how it should work better. Now that he's a private sector man, Ridge has been outspoken and refreshingly candid about how he thinks the agency should be improved.

In a recent event hosted by The Ripon Society in Washington, Ridge discussed what he thinks the current administration, and the next Congress, should address in order to improve national security.

Ridge criticized insufficient funding for the Coast Guard, specifically, as well as the the lack of a system to develop and distribute vaccines, according to this article in Government Executive.

In his remarks, Ridge said the national response to the H1N1 virus last year showed the country does not have an adequate system for developing, storing and distributing vaccines in response to a public health emergency.

But, Ridge went so far as to say that DHS should be overhauled and regional centers should be created around the country. He said that during his tenure at DHS he proposed establishing regional directors when the Bush administration was creating the new department, but his plan was rejected.

Such directors could develop close relationships with state governors in their regions, he said. And he questioned whether the government's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 would have been better if regional structure had been in place. He said he doubted that storm victims would have had to seek shelter in the Louisiana Superdome or that buses would have been left unused in parking lots had that structure been in place.

Also, Ridge discussed the ongoing need for better communication systems and called for the creation of a broadband public safety network that enables first responders to communicate with each other. (Remember this story about how ancient the communication networks were in Maryland so that fire and police in neighboring counties couldn't communicate with each other?)

Ridge has previously commented on a blizzard of other security issues including aviation security, which he said was inadequate, saying “we're not doing a very good job” of securing America’s airports.

In that speech, he said the Transportation Security Administration needs to change the way it approaches security:

Ridge said that during his tenure as the head of DHS, he pushed for such a program that would collect biometric information and perform voluntary background checks to identify travelers. But the idea was not accepted for reasons he doesn’t understand.

When I spoke with him (*ahem*), he discussed the need for the private security sector to be more thoroughly engaged with the government’s security efforts and why the two sectors don't currently have a stronger partnership:

“So many men and women involved in private sector security have a background in the military, law enforcement or the intelligence world and, in my judgment, can and should be trusted with certain types of information, knowing full well their sensitivity to its public dissemination,” he said. “Why the government is so reluctant to share with these individuals, is beyond me.”

Obviously, DHS has a long way to go in its national security efforts, and, frankly, it's a mission that everyone knows will never be fulfilled. But there's always room for improvement and at least somebody's talking about how to make it better.

Does DHS have a right to search your computer? ACLU says no, sues

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

In previous articles on border security, I've focused largely on the physical protection of the border. Just yesterday on our newswire, I put out a brief about how DHS is now covering the entire Southwest border with unmanned drones. I've also written about how DHS has increased the amount of personnel and technology to protect the border.

But this story caught my eye, mostly because I thought it brought up an interesting question about the changing threats facing our nation. Basically, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing DHS over their policies allowing for the search and seizure of laptops, cellphones and other electronic devices without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal.

"Innocent Americans should not be made to feel like the personal information they store on their laptops and cellphones is vulnerable to searches by government officials any time they travel out of the country," said Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

The ACLU said more than 6,600 travelers—nearly half of them U.S. citizens—were subject to electronic device searches at border crossings between Oct. 1, 2008, and June 2, 2010.

However, isn't one of the greatest challenges for DHS intelligence gathering and dissemination? And haven't they been criticized over and over for their inability to put together very disparate pieces of information to prevent incidents (think underwear bomber)? And while I can certainly understand how the traveling public would not want to have their personal belongings scrutinized by border officials, we live in an electronic age. Everything you put on the Internet, from blogs and facebook posts to personal emails and financial transactions, aren't safe from scrutiny. I'm getting into some legal stuff here, things that I don't have the background to talk about, but I think this lawsuit brings up an interesting question about what DHS considers to be a significant risk to national security.

As someone who grew up regularly crossing the border (my parents live about 30 minutes from Canada), we were always aware that border officials could do whatever they wanted to our possessions. We heard nightmarish stories about people's cars getting torn apart, searched and left trashed. So it doesn't surprise me that those policies extend to electronic devices. Regardless, it'll be interesting to follow.

Boston subway conducts tests of airborne contaminants

Thursday, August 26, 2010

I've mentioned before that subways kinda freak me out. While I appreciate public transportation and love the idea of not needing to own a car (which is not a possibility when you live in a state like Maine), my mild claustrophobia always kicks in when I ride the subway in Boston or New York. There's just something about being trapped underground that wigs me out.

And this could be why:

Boston's Massachusetts Bay Trans Authority, in coordination with DHS, is currently conducting a week-long scientific study of airflow in the underground portion of the subway system. The agency will be gathering data on the behavior of airborne contaminants if they were to be released into the subway.

The study involves releasing non-toxic, inert, odorless gas and particle tracers into the subway system. Particle and gas concentrations will be sampled in more than 20 stations and in subway cars covering the entirety of the underground portion of the MBTA subway system.

While the deliberate release of chemical or biological agents is of primary concern, the study will also help researchers understand airflow characteristics for smoke or unintentional spills of chemicals or fuels-providing a direct benefit to MBTA for use in developing evacuation, ventilation and other incident response strategies.

Studies of this nature are obviously very important in training emergency response agencies how best to respond to such incidents. Fears of biological and chemical attacks continue to be a serious threat. This recent Wall Street Journal article discusses how "rapid advances in bioscience are raising alarms among terrorism experts that amateur scientists will soon be able to gin up deadly pathogens for nefarious uses."

Last fall, President Barack Obama ordered the creation of a bioethics commission, and the group spent much of its first meeting parsing the threat of biological terrorism. He also issued an executive order earlier this month to beef up security for the most dangerous pathogens, which include anthrax, ebola, tularensis, smallpox and the reconstructed 1918 Spanish flu bug.

Both houses of Congress have legislation in the works to strengthen the country's ability to detect, prevent and, if necessary, recover from large-scale attacks using bioweapons.

So it makes sense that mass transit authorities would conduct these types of experiments to determine how contaminants would flow through the system. Boston seems ahead of the game, as a matter of fact, so good for them. I'm sure the results of this study will shed a lot of light on how security officials should respond to an incident and that actually makes me feel a lot better about riding the subway. Well, sorta. Kinda. Okay, not really. But still, it's a good step.

Senators upset about body scanning blunder

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I blogged not long ago about the possible implications for the Transportation Security Administration's effort to install body scanning technology in airports after the U.S. Marshals admitted to storing more than 35,000 images from such machines in a Florida courthouse.

Nobody is happy about this situation and now Senators from the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee are demanding answers. Chairman Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins sent a letter last week to John Clark, the director of the U.S. Marshals Service, asking for a full explanation about why the service has been storing images produced from whole body scanning machines, reported The Hill.

"This is a troubling response that suggests the U.S. Marshals Service has failed to fully appreciate the seriousness of the issue. The perception of whole body imaging scans differs greatly from that of security camera footage, and therefore demands a higher level of sensitivity to the legitimate privacy concerns of those being scanned."

Apparently, the US Marshals weren't storing the images for any specific purpose, which of course makes one wonder why they would store them at all (especially since it's well known how controversial this technology has been for the government).

The Senators also noted that the TSA has adopted strict protocols regarding the retention of such images and requests the U.S. Marshals Service should do the same.

Tom Ridge advocates for stronger ties between government and private sector


WASHINGTON, D.C.—As the country’s first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge battled against an entrenched “need-to-know” culture that hampered the flow of information that was vital to the job of keeping the country secure from increasingly complex threats.

Just me and Tom Ridge ... chattin'

Friday, August 20, 2010

I interview high-level security professionals on a regular basis. Just the other day, I spoke with the CSO and manager of corporate security for, you know, the City of Calgary. Owen Key was a nice guy. He was well spoken, smart, knew his security stuff. I got a good story out of it. No big deal, really.

Well, on Monday, I'm scheduled for what is certainly the biggest interview of my career so far. I have an interview with Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (oh, and a former Congressman and Governor of Pennsylvania, too). So no big deal, right?

Uh, except, yes big deal.

I'm currently reading his book, The Test of our Times, and it's been very interesting to learn about the formation of DHS, from an inside perspective. First of all, bringing 180,000 federal employees from 22 agencies together under one roof seems like a daunting task, but to do it during a time where Americans felt so vulnerable? Well, let's just say it's not a job I (or I suspect most of you) would take on.

In his book, he discusses his reservations about accepting this position knowing that no matter what kind of job he did, good or bad, he probably wouldn't come out of it unscathed:

"And if I suspected that my political career would be sacrificed, well, so be it: We are all expendable. Despite my reservations, I would take on this new assignment, and I would give it my best."

I'm only a quarter of the way through this book (don't worry, I'll finish it by Monday), but I'm hoping it'll give me more insight into what he went through as a high-ranking government official. But that's not what I'm most interested in for my conversation with Ridge.

After he left political life, somewhat controversially, he founded a private security consulting firm, Ridge Global. Now as someone on the private-sector side of life, I'm curious if his perspective about how the government goes about protecting its people has changed? Obviously, DHS is an older (although still very young) department than when he was there, but I wonder if he sees better ways for the government to work with the private security sector? How does he think security professionals should be engaged? Are there specific skills security professionals need that he doesn't think they have? What about during disasters? Is the way we prepare and respond to emergencies evolving appropriately? What's the private sector's role in strengthening the nation against terrorism?

Oh, so many questions and so little time to ask them. Don't worry, I'll narrow it down before our conversation.

But, I wanted to give you, my loyal blog readers, an opportunity to have some input. What would you like to know from Ridge? Leave some questions in the comment section here or email me: LStelter(at) If nothing else, wish me good luck, people.

But, if you'd prefer to ask him yourself, he will be the keynote speaker at an event called Security Leadership: Reducing Costs without Sacrificing Value on Sept. 14 in Washington, D.C. I'm planning to attend this event and, you know, maybe shake his hand or get my picture taken with him or something. He definitely makes my Top 5 security celebrities. Don't tell my friends what a security geek I've become.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Read the full story from my conversation with Tom Ridge here.

Senate passes border security bill


WASHINGTON—Just hours before Congress convened for its August break, the Senate passed a $600 million border security bill on Aug. 5. Senate Bill 3721, which passed by a voice vote, authorized funds for 1,500 new law enforcement agents as well as unmanned drones to be deployed along the border, reported The Washington Independent.

DHS takes on stadium security

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I was reading about one of Secretary Napolitano's numerous visits around the country and was surprised to learn about DHS's effort to help secure our nation's stadiums. As you know, she has been pushing DHS's newly established "If You See Something, Say Something" campaign to enhance the public's awareness and participation in reporting suspicious activity. During one of her most recent visits to New Orleans, she spoke at the National Sports Safety and Security Conference.

Secretary Napolitano underscored the Department's ongoing partnership with the sports industry to improve stadium security—including DHS' commitment to visit all 300 of America's major sports leagues and NCAA Division I facilities, with nearly 260 receiving security assessments from DHS teams since May. Additionally, DHS' Science and Technology Directorate is currently supporting a program that aims to enhance the safety of players, staff and spectators by modeling the evacuation of sports facilities, which is being developed by the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety And Security at the University of Southern Mississippi—part of the Southeast Region Research Initiative.

Some of you may recall I conducted an sdnTVnews interview with Dr. Lou Marciani, who directs the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi. In the video he discussed the importance of educating security directors, particularly stadium folks in securing these vulnerable facilities.

I think DHS's initiative to visit 300 sports facilities around the country is actually quite impressive and an important recognition of the criticality of such facilities. During my tour of the Dallas Cowboys Stadium, Jack Hill, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, discussed the vulnerability of stadiums:

“Security is increased exponentially on event day,” said Hill. “As a target, this facility is more desirable with people in it.” The stadium conducts bomb sweeps of the building prior to an event and the Arlington Police Department bring in bomb-sniffing dogs to sweep fan vehicles and parking areas. No vehicle is allowed inside the 100-foot bollard line that surrounds the building without first being swept for explosives.

An attack on a stadium, especially during an event, would cause a significant amount of destruction and deaths, but would also cause long-term damage to the psyche of the general public. And DHS knows that. While stadiums continue to increase their security and have adopted policies to involve fans (such as the ability to text message security personnel if there's a concern or incident), I think having DHS conduct security assessments for such stadiums will further standardize security measures at these facilities.

GAO report finds there may be too many agencies securing public transit

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Securing our nation's mass transit systems seems like a nearly impossible task and there's certainly no silver bullet for protecting the traveling public. A new report issued by the Government Accountability Office in July found that there are a number of promising explosives detection technologies out there, but also noted there are serious limitations that need to be addressed for proper deployment in a rail environment.

The report found that handheld, desktop, and kit-based trace detection systems, x-ray imaging systems, as well as the use of canines, are all technologies that have demonstrated good detection capabilities, but did not recommend any of these technologies specifically.

One of the concerns in securing ground transportation is passenger flow. It's fairly understood that passengers on New York's subway system, for example, are not going to tolerate major interruptions of their commute. Therefore, the government needs to find technologies that can detect explosives, but do not impede on passenger flow. For this, the GAO recommends the development of a concept of operations that "would help balance security with the need to maintain the efficient and free flowing movement of people. A concept of operations could include a response plan for how rail employees should react to an alarm when a particular technology detects an explosive."

The GAO also reported that in implementing these technologies and policies there are possibly too many organizations involved in this effort:

While there is a shared responsibility for securing the passenger rail environment, the federal government, including TSA, and passenger rail operators have differing roles, which could complicate decisions to fund and implement explosives detection technologies. For example, TSA provides guidance and some funding for passenger rail security, but rail operators themselves provide day-to-day-security of their systems.

TSA seems to be taking a bigger role in securing surface transportation. Secretary Napolitano recently announced the agency (and its new head) will focus more of its efforts on securing mass transit. It recently launched a national "See Something, Say Something" campaign, but no specifics on the technology side.