Redefining National Security

Agencies slowly embrace new missions and strategies.

For the thousands of Government Executive readers who live in the Capital region, security questions are rarely far from top of mind.

As a prime target for terrorists, we know that a dirty bomb, biological attack, or worse could come our way. And we are reminded regularly that attacks on local infrastructure could spell disaster. On Dec. 11, The Washington Post warned that the city was vulnerable to a blackout from a terrorist attack on the weakest points in the region's power grid. That could trigger an environmental tragedy as well, the Post reported, because loss of power for more than 24 hours at the huge Blue Plains waste treatment plant would send millions of gallons of raw sewage down the Potomac and into the Chesapeake Bay. The Post's editorial page also has railed against the federal government's failure to divert toxic chemical rail shipments away from the city, noting that the explosion of a single tank car of chlorine could seriously harm 100,000 people within an hour.

These vulnerabilities so close to home remind us that national security has become all about homeland security, even though that phrase wasn't in our day-to-day vocabulary a few years ago. These and other threats, Katherine McIntire Peters observes in this issue, are not easily addressed by the traditional national security bureaucracies. They are adapting slowly, as she and other Government Executive writers chronicle in our special report this month on "Redefining National Security."

"Nation building" was a dirty word during President Bush's first campaign, but what Peters describes as the "administration's complete conversion to the merits of nation building" has been evident both in the Nov. 30 White House release titled "Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" and in Bush's recent series of speeches on American objectives there. Peters reports that the State Department has established a new Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization in a bid to give our government a permanent institutional capacity to plan substantial stabilization and reconstruction efforts of the kind mounted on an ad hoc basis 17 times in the past 15 years. The administration also has proposed a Conflict Response Fund that would make money available immediately to begin stabilization operations. At this writing, Congress had not embraced either initiative, but the Pentagon, concerned about its own deep involvement in post-conflict activities, had proposed transferring up to $200 million to State to get the fund up and running.

Terrorism might not flourish in stable nations, but for now, the threat to U.S. interests is plain, and preventing attacks requires better intelligence and more sharing of information among U.S. agencies. In this issue, Jason Vest reports that the CIA is far behind in its promised improvement of human intelligence capabilities. On the other hand, Justin Rood has good news to report: The traditional reluctance of senior bureaucrats to share information with other agencies can be overcome by creating interagency teams of lower-level analysts or even unmanaged networks, or "swarms," of collaborative communities.

These articles, and one by Chris Strohm on national security whistleblowers' efforts, offer perspectives on the gathering movement to remake the government's national security missions and strategies.

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