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This is the moment. It’s here. We’re in the catastrophe.

This is the moment. It’s here. We’re in the catastrophe.
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By:  Vanessa Burnett – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.

It’s been a while since I wrote a fundamentally disturbing homeland security post. Seems like it’s time. This one’s a doozy, with a whole lot of the things. No magic wands today. More of a look behind the curtain.

Where to start? Today’s thread-pull starts with the military, and bureaucracy itself.

Had a talk this evening with a friend about the US military, and hopes that people in the military would be able to hold it steady given the encroaching tyranny in the US.

My take on that is similar to that of other government agencies. Those with less political appointees have a more solid rock of career civil service and senior executive service folks to hold the line. In fact, bureaucracy is intended in part to be a purposeful bulwark against extreme political whims.

As an example, the USDA Forest Service has one (1) political appointee, and somewhere around 40,000 employees. It’s an older agency, too, going back to the early 1900s. That older bureaucracy also helps hold the line.

As a counterexample, the Federal Emergency Management agency, FEMA, has something under 3,000 permanent-ish employees (FEMA has weird hiring authorities). When I left the agency around 2011, there were 36 – THIRTY SIX – political appointees at FEMA.

Also, FEMA is newer, and with a less old, less established bureaucracy. FEMA was created around 1980. It’s not a stable agency. It’s had corruption issues off and on for years, and dysfunction clearly and painfully visible to the public it is meant to serve. These issues improved a bit after Hurricane Katrina, but not to a level where we could call it a mature and well-functioning agency (for further reference, see all major recent US disasters and their recovery).

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), of which FEMA is one component, has a similar volume of political appointees to those at FEMA across the whole department. Appointees are – or seem to be anyway – especially concentrated in the Office of the Secretary, which includes many of the headquarters-type components of the department. For example, I was detailed to the Office of Policy’s (POL) Private Sector Office (PSO). We had *four* political appointees in a staff of maybe fifteen.

Plus, DHS is new. Authorized in 2002 and formed on March 1, 2003.

It’s not a mature bureaucracy. It’s not yet been a healthy, efficient, and well-functioning department. It wasn’t *before* the Trump Administration took over.

One of the most terrifying things to me about the Trump Administration is what a budding authoritarian could do with an already weak, vulnerable department such as DHS. Especially considering the authorities DHS carries.

^^ The previous paragraph is the main focus of this piece.

We’ve already seen some of the damage. I’m not going to make a comprehensive list. Lots of it has been well covered by intrepid reporters, active non-profits, and an enraged public.

There are some aspects of this vulnerable DHS that haven’t gotten a lot of attention.

Two things happened within the first six months of the Trump administration that have been kind of passed over.

One is that the Office for Countering Violent Extremism (domestically) was dissolved. This likely includes intelligence and cases compiled over many years.

Another is that the White House asked the intelligence community (IC) component of DHS (called Intelligence & Analysis, or I&A) early on to provide an intelligence report that justified more aggressive action at the southern border, to include but not limited to an expanded southern border wall. I&A, or some within I&A, initially refused but were eventually overturned. Reporting on this was thin. No further such leaks have made it to the front of the news tsunami. Which could lead one to wonder how much intelligence has been inappropriately skewed for political reasons to “justify” other homeland security action.

It erodes the institution. It erodes public trust in the institution. It erodes intelligence community trust in DHS. It erodes Congressional oversight of DHS. And this all started before the administration started blocking document requests by Congress at scale – which is a whole other issue.

Separate from the underreported homeland security issues, massive law enforcement and other authorities vested in the department, heavy political influence, inefficiencies, and bureaucratic immaturity… the department was knocked off track early on; well before the Trump Administratration.

It’s a department that was meant to facilitate homeland security in part by helping to strengthen, supplement, and support state and local government in their efforts to facilitate homeland security. But rather than hiring ex-cops and ex-first-responders and ex-state-and-local people, the department brought in a whole lot of ex-military.

When you are looking to build up and strengthen the domestic United States, military folks are not the best people to bring in. We needed state and local people. People who understood federalism. People who understand the federal government’s role in supporting state and local government.

We ended up creating a new Homeland Security industrial complex… in addition to the existing defense industrial complex.

Creating “security theater” is easier sometimes than navigating a complex landscape of intertwined state and local government agencies; all needing help in different ways. It’s easier to build security theater with fancy metrics than it is to build deep, lasting resilience. It’s super easy to hire to hire defense contractors on big contracts to come up with guns, guards, and gates “solutions.”

Guns, guards, and gates don’t make us secure. Security is a lot more complicated than that.

DHS did have a few good things going for it before the Trump Administration. A lot of pretty good people. Some good Federal cops. Some decent bureaucrats here and there. Okay it’s not a great list. I did say this was a disturbing post.

One of the *good* things as an example is that rather than just rounding up “illegal immigrants” en masse for deportation, the Obama Administration recognized that resources could be put to more efficient, effective use by going after high value targets such as violent criminals, drug traffickers, human traffickers, money launderers, potential terrorists, and so on. So they did, and a robust approach evolved including surveillance, intelligence, arrests, prosecution, and removal.

The Trump Administration threw all of that out.

So not only are they going after black and brown people for larger-scale unprioritized deportations, they are *not* going after or prioritizing high value targets.

Which means there are more high-value targets running around in the United States. Drug traffickers. Human traffickers. Money launderers. Etc.

That’s a decision the Trump Administration made *intentionally*. They decided to do that.

They also *decided* to separate kids from their parents at the border, WITHOUT TRACKING and with no plans for reunification. Ever. They have made it more and more difficult for asylum-seekers to even cross the southern border in legal ways, leading to humanitarian crises at the border… which do not in the long-term make the United States safer. They have caged humans for extended periods in border stations meant for tiny numbers for short periods. The impacts and effects by survivors and their progeny will be felt for a generation or more.

We don’t know how much of this continues.

One thing about the Trump Administration for all of their incompetence and poorly executed plans is that they are figuring out government as time has gone on. They’re getting better at figuring out how to make government work for their increasingly nationalist, fascist, authoritarian missions.

For example, the administration is screwing around with disaster aid. To a level that is very difficult to even summarize without some serious research, because it’s happening so much and in complex ways. The obvious case is the various ways in which aid to Puerto Rico has been withheld, held up, or made more complicated. Threats and some progress in withholding disaster aid have been made against states by the Trump Administration or by the president.

This week the president has been threatening to use other authorities vested at DHS against the state of New York because that state is prosecuting him personally.

DHS is a department charged with coordinating the national essential functions and mission essential functions of constitutional US government and the continuity of the government in case of attack, catastrophe, or other scenarios.

DHS is one of four primary Federal entities that coordinate on cybersecurity threats, including being the legal mechanism for coordinating with the private sector – and fast. DHS is also the legal mechanism for federal coordination with the private sector in terms of critical infrastructure resilience and protection.

DHS would be the department to coordinate on facilitating election security with state and local governments if a) the administratration actually pushed it to do so, which it has not, and b) Congress actually pushed, legislated, required, and funded it to do so, which Republican legislators refuse to do.

Given the president’s inclinations and use of the department so far, why would we think that he would not take all of the powerful and fundamental protections, authorities, and capabilities vested in DHS and use them to his own ends – rather than to protect constitutional government – if push came to shove?

Given that the US Congress is unable to effectively oversee the executive branch at this moment in time as demonstrated by the failure to impeach and remove the president, we can’t effectively mitigate such risks.

That’s some fundamentally disturbing irony, given that the US Department of Homeland Security was intended to help the United States minimize and mitigate risk.

I doubt you’ll get this specific mix of analysis from anyone else. I am in the unique position of having worked 9 years in four headquarters components of DHS plus FEMA; working to build resilience, incident management, and disaster information sharing initiatives across the department through that entire span… and whistleblowing a major post-9/11 system for 2 years along the way.

I left DHS in 2014, but I looked pretty deeply into the department to check out how functional it was before I left. To the point where I took a job in the core of the department to see how ready we were for a national catastrophe. The answer: not ready. It didn’t look good. And that was *before* it was clear that the next catastrophe the US would face would be a demagogue in the White House.

I created a space for countering fear in 2013, after years of navigating some of the above. Years of meetings about terrorism wear on you. I didn’t want to live in a world where we were so focused on fear all the time. There have to be – and there are – ways in which we counter it.

Now we have nascent, emerging tyranny in the US.

It turns out that countering fear will be an absolute critical major key feature of countering that tyranny. Arguably, the fear unleashed in the US by terrorists on 9/11 helped Mr. Trump leverage the power of fear to be elected in 2016. Timothy Snyder, Yale University Professor and author of “On Tyranny,” said this week that one challenge of authoritarianism in this century is that it demobilizes people, and a demoralized, disempowered public stays home while tyranny spreads.

Countering it will take community. Teams. Groups. Alliances. Coalitions.

It will take connection. It will take the best of our humanity. Our human-ness. We will need to find strength, resilience, and inspiration in our fellow humans. We’ll need to take turns. We’ll need to pull each other up and forward.

It is always darkest before the dawn, and there is more darkness to come. This post is not intended to spread fear. It is intended to spread awareness.

We are better able to face risk when we understand what’s out there. There are some very, very deep vulnerabilities in the US. Recognizing that they exist will help us to navigate the shock when the unbelievable hits. And it will.

The way out is together. The way out is together. The way out is together.

Together. That is the truest homeland security. That is the deepest resilience.

We can make it happen. We take a deep breath; we look around; we assess the scene; and we figure out how we can help. There will be things.

For now, finding strength and getting some extra resilience is a good start. Get grounded. Do some grieving. Find good people. Ask here if you’re not sure where to start.

Because this is the moment. It’s here.

We’re in the catastrophe.

And we need to bring our A-game: our asymmetrical game.

We do it together. That’s how *we* get it done.

Holler if you want to know more. We’re building a movement.

It’s time.


Join us at Counter Fear.



Vanessa Burnett is a disruption coach and consultant at, helping people and organizations navigate and create disruption. A career in disaster management, resilience-building, infrastructure, and technology innovation informs her current work. Vanessa is also the President of the Shift the Country PAC, working to foster tipping points across the US through connection, community, and resilience to create real world shift.



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