How a former Delta Force officer would fix Homeland Security

That’s retired Lt. Col. Jim Reese’s top-line ethos for reforming the department. Reese is an exceptional national security management thinker. A former senior Delta Force officer who was instrumental to the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq, Reese would make an excellent leader of a security agency. That’s why I asked him this week how he would fix Homeland Security.

Controlling most of the nation’s domestic security agencies, Homeland Security needs a new leader following secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s firing. Reese made two points that stand out in their prospective value.

First, he called for changing the role of the secretary of homeland security to one that is focused on facilitation and oversight rather than management of the vast bureaucracy. As Reese put it, “you can have a homeland security Cabinet official who looks at the [ground-level] elements of DHS, but without the huge headquarters element.” The department’s oversized bureaucracy has long been a problem in that it creates obstacles to efficient and effective operational decisions. It also moves those who know the problems best further away from the means of resolving those challenges.

Reese also suggested that the homeland security secretary needs to appreciate Trump’s focus on the border. To that end, the secretary should “have the border security director up to Washington for insight.” There, they can “execute the president’s intent with Cabinet oversight.”

Reese’s observation here is that the homeland security secretary should be focused on getting the right officials with the best knowledge of a problem in front of the president and his Cabinet. Doing so will foster responsibility for implementing Trump’s directives. It’s a worthy concern. After all, the Department of Homeland Security too often moves the operators too far away from the policymaker. It makes sense, for example, that in the event of a border crisis, it is the head of Customs and Border Protection who briefs the Cabinet, not the homeland security secretary. Or that in the event of a nuclear weapons threat to the homeland, it is the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office director who briefs the Cabinet, not the homeland security secretary.

Reese’s overarching point here is that whoever gets the department’s top job needs to be someone who gets the right people in front of the right policymakers at the right time. Regardless, the border chaos and the importance of the department’s mission means that we need some original thinking at the department. Absent that, we’ll keep seeing the same failures.