On the anniversary of 9/11, the 21 years since the horrible attack on our nation reminds us that we still have a great deal of work to do, particularly to protect our country from global catastrophic threats. I was honored and privileged to serve President Bush and Homeland Security Advisor, Gov. Tom Ridge, in the post 9/11 White House, a dramatic and uncertain time to say the least. After Gov. Ridge left Pennsylvania to take leadership of Homeland Security at the White House, he and our team were greeted on Day One by a burgeoning anthrax attack. We had many more questions than answers and quickly realized that our global catastrophic risk capabilities were seriously flawed.
At the time, I served as a deputy assistant to the president for Homeland Security, and as part of my responsibility, I spent time in the situation room for a year being briefed every day on national security threats as they related to the homeland.
My friends would often ask me what “scared” me the most, and I would always answer: biological threats.
All these years later, the COVID-19 pandemic reminded all of us about the ramifications of our nation and the world still not being prepared to act decisively with a well-planned federal response to global catastrophic events. The human suffering and the staggering economic costs should be a clarion call for global catastrophic risk strategies to become an actionable, and properly funded, national priority.
In the original blueprint for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security — and in the authorizing statute — was the establishment of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA). The vision was for HSARPA to perform necessary research and transform that research into necessary solutions to our homeland security challenges, based on the model of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has been critical to informing the best national security team in the world. DARPA is known for being visionary, first and foremost. It also is organized in a way that allows the team to have not only management roles, but also robust funding and flexibility in procurement to maximize their success. However, for a myriad of reasons, HSARPA has come nowhere close to emulating this model.
Many think tanks, legislators, and former DHS employees have commented that HSARPA has lacked a particular focus. While biodefense must involve HHS and DOD components, DHS needs to be a significant part of this threat matrix team, and HSARPA should be considered a leader and a critical link.
With its recently released “First Annual Report on Progress towards implementation of the American Pandemics Preparedness Plan,” the Biden administration cites among its priorities an increased investment in research and development dollars for biodefense. Additionally, Congress is currently considering ways to sharpen the mission of the office for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction at DHS. But — to date — there has been a lack of focus on HSARPA and the challenges within the Science and Technology Directorate.
First and foremost, HSARPA should conduct a net mission assessment of HSARPA that evaluates the current threat landscape and provides direction, vision, and a new mission statement for HSARPA. Projects are funded but not in the context of meeting a specific strategy. Developing strategies for long-term professional management and procurement strategies, similar to DARPA, are also a key to future success. And of course, Congress will need to provide much more funding if we are to accomplish the goal that was intended by HSARPA by our DHS founders.
I still consider DHS 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 that we can better protect the American people.
Mark Holman, a partner at Ridge Policy Group, served as deputy assistant for homeland security to President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks.