Agencies urged to set homeland security standards

Randall Yim of the General Accounting Office is stepping outside the agency's traditional realm to push a policy of requiring agencies to set standards for homeland security.

Randall Yim probably doesn't fit anyone's picture of a homeland-security evangelist. Calmly sitting cross-legged at a conference table in his office in the General Accounting Office's drab headquarters, Yim is the antithesis of fire and brimstone. His tone is low-key, almost professorial. And his attire is standard-issue Washington professional-a dark suit and tie. But as the GAO's managing director for national preparedness, he is heading up the agency's new effort to think big and long-term about homeland security. And he is relentlessly traveling the country and walking the halls of Congress to try to prod the rest of America into doing the same.

Yim, a native of California and an environmental lawyer by training, came to the nation's capital in 1998 to assume an only-in-Washington title: principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for installations, logistics, and environment. Within three months, he became deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations. He went on win earn the Defense Department's Medal for Distinguished Public Service in January 2001. Working with the GAO while still at the Defense Department, Yim caught the eye of GAO Comptroller General David Walker. Impressed by Yim's intellect, Walker wooed him to the GAO. Yim reported for duty in August 2001 and began to tackle defense and environmental projects. Two weeks later, terrorists slammed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

That day, a crusader was born. "I'm making the classic lawyer mistake," Yim confessed to National Journal. "I had friends and colleagues killed in the Pentagon attack. Because of that personal connection, I feel a sense of urgency to go forward." As "homeland security" emerged as a top federal priority, Walker asked Yim to lead an informal task force to give the GAO a handle on the issue. Next, Yim became the first national-preparedness director within the agency's homeland-security team.

Placing a newcomer in such a high-level role was unusual for the GAO, but the move was part of Walker's effort to infuse new blood into the staid government watchdog agency. "Randall is very bright. He's very creative," Walker says. Colleagues describe the self-effacing Yim as "an intellectual," "a visionary," and "a consensus builder."

What keeps Yim awake at night is his worry that the nation's approach to homeland security is unsustainable. Policy makers at all levels, he frets, think of homeland security as merely a "bolt-on" program. He disdainfully compares their attitude to that of the auto industry when it decided not to fundamentally rethink car designs in the 1970s after Ford Pintos started to explode when they were rear-ended. Automakers instead chose to simply bolt on bigger bumpers. Yim's PowerPoint presentation to local officials even features a slide of a Pinto. His alternative: embedding homeland-security principles into all elements of public policy-from energy regulations to building codes. His challenge: persuading the governmental powers-that-be, especially those in Congress, to make it happen.

While the GAO is careful to maintain its standing as an objective outside evaluator of government endeavors, Yim's work takes the agency into a new role-that of ideas broker and pitchman. Policy advocacy is "unusual for GAO," Yim acknowledges. The GAO's advocacy role on homeland security-coming on the heels of the agency's lawsuit against Vice President Cheney to try to force him to divulge details of the meetings that led to the administration's energy policy-suggests that Walker intends to make the government's chief accountability agency a more potent force.

Although the bulk of the GAO's work consists of responding to congressional requests, Walker wants 10 percent of his agency's efforts to be on major initiatives of its own. Walker described them as dealing with "more-strategic, complex, crosscutting, and longer-range issues."

Walker is determined to sell Congress on the GAO's conclusions about long-range solutions to what it sees as significant problems. Walker says that his "client"-Congress-is understandably preoccupied with short-term, localized issues because of lawmakers' focus on winning re-election. But, he adds, the tendency of Congress and the executive branch to think small makes devoting some of the GAO's energy to thinking big all the more important.

The old reliable GAO seems well suited to thinking about the massive problem of homeland security in the post-9/11 world. It also seems suited to delivering harsh messages about what the nation must do to try to protect itself. In Yim's view, at least, there's a crying need for the government to adopt a take-your-medicine-and-eat-your-vegetables approach. As Yim patiently outlined the GAO's master plan for homeland security-flow charts and all-during two hour-long sessions in his office, he took a page from the environmental chapter of his life. In the 1970s, environmentalists began establishing standards aimed at ensuring that the government and companies were good stewards of Earth's resources. Similar standards, he says, are needed for homeland security. For example, Yim would like to see a standard for ensuring that financial markets have the technology in place to withstand a variety of terrorist attacks.

Currently, the Department of Homeland Security, Congress, and the private sector are haphazardly trying to establish standards for various aspects of homeland security. But Yim worries that unless these efforts become more unified and standardized, dangerous gaps are inevitable.

Thinking Big

Randall Yim isn't content to just tinker. "One of the concerns I have about homeland security," he said, "is, we have to begin addressing the core issues." He quickly ticks off several: Who is in charge? What should be done, and who should be doing it? Who should pay for these changes, and how? How do you hold people accountable? How do you track progress?

As homeland-security strategies proliferate at all levels of government, Yim is dismayed to see that they are rarely connected to cost considerations-or to one another. He wants to bring the high-flying talk of strategies down to ground level, where planners could focus on such issues as how much it costs states, localities, and private businesses when the federal government raises the national terrorism threat level to, say, Code Orange-where it was for nearly nine weeks this year.

After getting a better sense of costs, the planners' next step would be to assess what homeland-security precautions are being taken and whether they are actually making the nation safer. Right now, Yim said, federal money is flowing out, and there's no way to know whether it's doing any good. Just last week, President Bush signed the $31 billion Homeland Security appropriations bill, which he declared "a major step forward" in efforts "to make our nation more secure." But no one yet knows how much added security the $31 billion will really buy.

Some $4 billion of the total will go toward resolving the myriad complaints of so-called first responders. Billions of dollars are being spent on first responders, not because the Department of Homeland Security has determined that the country's greatest needs include ensuring that firefighters nationwide have hazmat suits, but rather because public officials were eager to heed the demands of the heroes of September 11. Plus, lawmakers all have large numbers of firefighters and police officers in their districts.

Among the difficult post-9/11 questions is whether spending money on first responders is the best way to enhance local security. If beefing up first-responder squads is a wise way to spend federal homeland-security funds, are hazmat suits needed more than upgraded walkie-talkies? And are they needed more than computer access to a terrorist watch list?

To begin intelligently answering these questions and weighing one demand against another, Yim said, the GAO should establish standards that detail what government and the private sector must do in order to assure a minimum level of security. There could, for example, be a standard for ensuring that a ship's cargo is not tampered with en route from Singapore to New York City.

Yim is not alone in seeing the creation of homeland-security standards as crucial. John Cohen, a cop-turned-homeland-security consultant, has helped states and localities, including Massachusetts and Detroit, draw up homeland-security strategies. How important is standardization? "It's critical," Cohen said. "You have got to get everybody talking the same language."

Several commissions have recommended the adoption of homeland-security standards. Most recently, the Council on Foreign Relations, in a project with former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., advocated national standards for first responders as the council lamented what it saw as their general lack of preparedness. The Gilmore Commission, headed by former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, also strongly advocated standards in its December 2002 report.

Scattershot Standards

No longer the exclusive territory of bean-counters, the wonkish topic of homeland-security standards has come into vogue on Capitol Hill in recent weeks. Lawmakers are targeting their standardization efforts at emergency workers. Meanwhile, various tentacles of the Homeland Security Department are grappling with the creation of an assortment of standards. Private industry may be the furthest along.

Several members of Congress, relative newcomers to the standards debate, have quickly found religion. "We are told Moses traveled in the desert for 40 years because he didn't have a plan," Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said at an October 2 press conference announcing legislation to establish national standards for first responders. "What we're trying to do with this bill is to get a plan, get standards, so that we know where we are and where we are going."

In late September, Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, started the standards stampede by introducing the PREPARE Act. Turner's bill, which has attracted a host of Democratic co-sponsors, would require the Department of Homeland Security to establish a task force to recommend first-responder equipment and training standards. Then, the secretary would be required to submit a plan for getting states and localities to adopt the voluntary standards. (Federal funds would be tied to compliance.)

Turner's initiative was followed by the introduction of a similar bill sponsored by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., the chairman of a Government Reform Committee subcommittee, and Maloney, the head of the House Democrats' Homeland Security Task Force.

And on October 9, California Republican Christopher Cox, who chairs the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, unveiled part of a comprehensive homeland-security bill that includes a range of proposals-from aligning funding for state and local responders with a given locale's vulnerability, to bolstering the Homeland Security Department's intelligence arm. Cox said in an interview that first-responder standards are "something that will be covered in our legislation," adding that he will work with Turner, Shays, and Maloney. Cox said he plans to mark up his bill before the end of the month.

At the Department of Homeland Security, Alfonso Martinez-Fonts, chief liaison to the private sector, and Frank Libutti, undersecretary for information analysis and infrastructure protection, have been reaching out to private-sector groups to discuss new safety standards for the financial and telecommunications sectors, among others. Other officials at the department are working on physical-security standards for chemical plants and cargo containers. Still others are forging ahead on standards for emergency-response equipment.

In the private sector, ASIS International, a trade group for the security industry, has been developing standards since June 2001. Earlier this year, it published guidelines to help companies perform a terrorism risk assessment, said Don Walker, who co-chairs ASIS's guidelines commission and is chairman of Securitas Security Services USA. "There's bits and pieces of work being developed by lots of organizations," he said. ASIS will soon release guidelines for how private industry should respond to announced changes in the national threat level. The trade group is also working on guidelines for hiring and training private security guards. And Walker says his commission has listed 30 priority areas in which it wants to develop homeland-security guidelines.

Still, Yim complains that the efforts to establish homeland-security standards aren't comprehensive. And the focus on training and equipment for first responders isn't even enough to prepare them adequately for emergencies. Capt. Michael Grossman of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, who heads his county's emergency operations bureau, warns that people from different parts of the government have difficulty understanding one another. He recalled that during the 1992 Los Angeles riots triggered by the beating of motorist Rodney King, the local police responded to a domestic-dispute call and were accompanied by marines for backup. As one of the police officers approached the house, he yelled, "Cover me," meaning "Watch my back." To the marines, "Cover me" meant "Lay down fire," so they fired more than 200 bullets toward the house. Fortunately, no one was hit.

ISO: In Search of a Plan

Creating standards, Yim insists, is the best way to figure out who's responsible for each aspect of homeland security. Again, he looks to the environmental realm for a positive example: the International Organization for Standardization. It's known as ISO, which was derived from the Greek isos, meaning "equal." The group's American corollary is the American National Standards Institute. Yim and his colleagues want to translate what ISO has done for international environmental policy and apply it to U.S. homeland security.

Launched in 1947, ISO aimed to blend private and public demands for cost control and quality control, so that a company would not be put at a competitive disadvantage for producing a high-quality product. The organization has since established more than 13,700 voluntary standards in business and environmental management that apply to everything from the size of a screw thread to proper procedures for recycling aluminum cans. ISO has two series of standards: ISO 9000 rules deal with general management specifications; ISO 14000 rules specify what a company must do to minimize environmental damage. By defining how things are to be done, these standards clarify both who's in charge and what they should be doing.

Yim sees promise for homeland security in following the lead of the environmental-standards efforts, which began with rules for toxic-waste cleanup and expanded to include such details as how much radiation a computer screen is allowed to emit. ISO 14000 was among the reforms inspired in the late 1970s by the Love Canal pollution disaster. And as ISO 14000 evolved, it became recognized essentially as common law, so that a company hit with a lawsuit can be held responsible, in court, for failing to meet those standards. For business, Yim said, the selling point was "increased reliability, decreased liability." That is, companies can feel assured that if they are meeting the standard, they won't be held accountable for not doing more.

In the realm of homeland security, Yim sees endless opportunities for crafting standards. To name a few: container security; protocols for assessing a city's vulnerabilities; power-grid protection; building codes; evacuation capacity for main thoroughfares; airline screening procedures; and, of course, emergency-response teams. There could also be standards for a hospital's capacity to triage patients or for a communications system's ability to operate despite a power outage. (During the Northeast's massive blackout this August, the 911 emergency communications systems failed in Detroit and New York City.)

Yim argues that, over time, homeland-security standards would transform the way the government and industry protect the nation. "It's a strategic approach that links theory to action and, I think, would significantly advance where we need to go as a country in homeland security," he says. "And it would give us a measure of whether we're making progress in being better prepared." Establishing standards would help ensure that there are no weak links in the "homeland-security supply-and-demand chain," he added. That should make the nation get more for its homeland-security dollar.

Standards would also provide a basis for gathering uniform data on what is or isn't effective, and for performing cost-benefit analyses. Plus, involving the business sector at the outset would ensure that these standards "are not blind to costs," Yim said.

Industry standards that the government sees as voluntary could end up being mandated by insurers offering terrorism coverage. And, Yim said, citizens would probably be willing to pay more for a government service-their local 911 system, for example-if they had the assurance that the system met a national standard of quality.

Developing homeland-security standards wouldn't be quick or cheap, Yim admitted, but he argues that it's time for homeland-security policy to become less panic-driven. He foresees government and industry working together to craft each individual standard, and he thinks that the GAO should form the teams to design each one.

Since the GAO is the investigative arm of Congress, Congress is its top client, of course. For Yim and his team, the key to success will be whether they can sell the Hill on their homeland-security vision. Although currently fixated on first responders, lawmakers such as Shays and Maloney are open to the idea of standards for other homeland-security arenas as well. Maloney said she's particularly open to standards involving cargo, power grids, water, and nuclear plants.

In fact, perhaps a homeland-security bill already in circulation will turn out to be just the vehicle Yim and his team need. With that in mind, they have been quietly buttonholing lawmakers in both parties. Yim's hope is to incorporate a broad notion of homeland-security standards into legislation before Congress adjourns for the year. His immediate window of opportunity will soon close, he fears: Thinking big homeland-security thoughts is unlikely to top many lawmakers' agendas in an election year.