Private sector leaders, key congressional staff and advisers to both presidential candidates largely agree that the next administration and Congress need to make critical infrastructure "resilience" a central concept in homeland security policy.
At a forum on Wednesday sponsored by the Reform Institute, there was widespread agreement that the federal government must do more to help the private sector develop the capacity to survive crises and bounce back, whether the calamity is induced by terrorists, extreme weather, pandemic disease or anything else.
"The challenge now is to define [resilience] and develop a comprehensive resiliency strategy that brings coherence and focus to homeland security policy, particularly the mission of the Department of Homeland Security," said Robert Kelly, a senior adviser at the Washington think tank.
The Reform Institute earlier this year conferred with more than 100 corporate leaders to explore best practices and share concerns about their ability to maintain continuity of operations during crises. Those discussions informed its new report on the subject, which recommends the next administration refocus DHS efforts to better identify threats in the global supply chain and serve as a clearinghouse for creating workable business continuity plans.
"I'm optimistic about our relationship with the [federal] government," said Michael Hickey, vice president for government affairs and national security policy at Verizon. He said the communications sector and Homeland Security have begun to define roles and relationships in a way that makes sense.
Whether a President Obama or President McCain takes the helm next year, his staff should tread carefully in crafting any new approach to protecting critical infrastructure, Hickey said. "I would encourage the new administration to take a thoughtful look at what programs exist and work."
"The federal government has done good work, but it is critical to push programs out to the states," Hickey said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has done a good job of organizing efforts at the regional level, but more needs to be done to coordinate efforts to protect critical infrastructure and mitigate damage to the economy and social fabric of communities in the event of a crisis, he added.
Timothy Farrell, a senior vice president for Bank of America, said the presidential transition and the fact that the next administration will have its hands full stabilizing the U.S. economy suggest that "this is a prime time for terrorists to take a look at us."
Advisers to Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain participated in the forum and supported the notion that the federal government must play a greater role in fostering resiliency in the private sector, which is responsible for 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure, according to the Reform Institute. But neither campaign offered concrete ideas for how they would approach the issue.
Lee Carosi Dunn, counsel to McCain on technology and homeland security issues, emphasized McCain's support for improving emergency communications interoperability among first responders and for beefing up cybersecurity, while P.J. Crowley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an Obama volunteer adviser, said national security spending is weighted too heavily toward military operations at the expense of domestic defenses.
One congressional staffer, who asked not to be identified, said too much of Homeland Security's focus on critical infrastructure has been in working with Washington-centric organizations -- large corporations and the associations that represent them.
"The dialogue at the state and local levels could be much more effective," he said. In addition, he said there needs to be someone in government who can function as a chief risk officer, weighing DHS' programs against similar programs at other agencies: "When we look at the Homeland Security budget request we don't know what is going on with [similar] investments [at other agencies]."