There are numerous challenges facing the Biden administration during its first 100 days, but few of them more pressing than addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, strengthening faith in American democracy, reforming policing practices that led to months of protests this summer, and confronting the threat posed by white supremacist groups. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will and should be a primary focus of the administration’s 100-day approach. Through DHS, the administration can better handle the challenges confronting the country.
FEMA has played a leading role in the federal government’s pandemic response in addition to supporting states across the country in responding to and recovering from wildfires (the West), floods (the Midwest), and hurricanes and tropical storms (Gulf states). At the request of states and through the CARES Act, FEMA has provided personnel support and grants to enhance the country’s capabilities in addressing COVID-19. As a result, it should be a priority to nominate a FEMA Administrator in January to enable the agency to ramp up the federal government’s support to states for the pandemic and plan for the eventual distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine.
STRENGTHENING AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
Restoring the public’s faith in our democratic processes will not happen only within 100 days, but the administration can emphasize that it will make protecting America’s critical infrastructure and combatting disinformation national security priorities for the next four years. The CISA Director should be empowered to confront these challenges with strong support from the White House, which would be in marked contrast to the experience of former Director Chris Krebs who was fired on November 17th for challenging President Trump’s claims of voter fraud in the presidential election. The Biden administration should do the following within the first 100 days:
The CISA Director should be empowered to confront these challenges with strong support from the White House, which would be in marked contrast to the experience of former Director Chris Krebs who was fired on November 17th for challenging President Trump’s claims of voter fraud in the presidential election.
// Direct the National Security Council’s Homeland Security Council and the DHS Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) responsibility for leading an interagency task force to develop the federal government’s approach to challenging domestic and foreign disinformation campaigns. This effort should outline how the government will work with private companies and the support CISA will provide to state and local governments through existing and potentially new grant and training mechanisms. There are proposed bills in Congress on strengthening the cooperation between CISA and state governments that could be amended to include funding for countering disinformation.
// Make election security a heightened priority for CISA, not just in the run-up to a presidential election. CISA should be on the US Election Assistance Commission’s Board of Advisors to increase cooperation on training, funding, and engaging state and local officials. The administration needs to work with Congress to appropriate funds for these efforts through must-pass legislation such as continuing resolutions and the National Defense Authorization Act. Strengthening our election infrastructure is too important to wait until 2023 before the next presidential election.
// Strengthen the department’s Office of International Affairs and the Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention Policy office by supplementing existing personnel with political appointees to make addressing the threat posed by white supremacist groups a priority. The 2020 Munich Security Report identified right-wing extremism as a global threat. DHS Office of International Affairs should work with European partners through bilateral dialogues and multilateral forums to outline an approach to address this threat. The Munich Security Conference takes place within the first three months of each year offering an opportunity for the new DHS Secretary to demonstrate the US government’s commitment to working with European partners to address white supremacist groups as an international threat. The DHS Counterterrorism and Threat Prevent Policy office should become the lead office in the department driving efforts to address this threat through the development of an actionable strategy, guidance to the department agencies, and outlining the use of DHS grants to organizations confronting white supremacists’ groups.
REFORMING LAW ENFORCEMENT
Nation-wide protests this summer demonstrated that the federal government needs to play an active role in reforming policing across the country. The federal government provides billions of dollars in grants to state and local police departments through DHS, the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Department of Defense (DOD). DHS and the NSC’s Homeland Security Council should immediately organize an interagency task force of DHS, DOJ, and DOD to evaluate the distribution of grants to police departments, making sure that law enforcement with a history of abuse do not receive federal grants until they implement meaningful and concrete reform. This task force should also explore reducing the number of federal departments providing grants to state and local law enforcement.
To further demonstrate a commitment to implementing nation-wide law enforcement reform, the Biden administration should immediately issue an executive order overturning the Trump administration’s guidance on the use of DHS law enforcement personnel to address protests across the country under the guise of protecting federal buildings, monuments, and property. This executive order should also stress that DHS law enforcement should only be used to execute their primary mission mandates while the administration examines how to limit the scope of 40 U.S. Code 1315 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 that allows the DHS Secretary to deputize other federal agents to assist the Federal Protective Service in protecting federal property.
Reforming law enforcement should not only focus on state and local police departments, but also on Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection. The Biden administration should immediately issue executive orders on January 20 overturning the Trump administration’s immigration and border security executive orders and ban family separation. This should quickly be followed by a DHS Secretary memo building on the 2014 guidance on the apprehension, detention, and removal of undocumented immigrants to structure the actions of ICE and CBP until those agencies can draft new policies.
While the challenges facing the country will extend beyond the Biden administration’s first 100 days, DHS can play a meaningful role in tackling these challenges to help the country move forward in the right direction for the future.
Dr. Heather Ashby is a foreign policy and national security professional based in the Washington, DC area.