DHS Should Give Rationale for Focus on Domestic Extremism and Election Security: GAO Report

DHS Should Give Rationale for Focus on Domestic Extremism and Election Security: GAO Report

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The DHS has not fully documented the rationale used for adding these new priorities, the Government Accountability Office has said.

After the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and spent significant money bolstering local response to the threat of terror attacks.

Since 2002, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is part of the DHS, has spent $55 billion in various threat preparedness grants to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments.

The money could be used to outfit a bomb squad, train law enforcement, or to add extra security to soft targets such as large stadiums of people at ball games.

In fiscal year 2020, the DHS introduced “National Priority Areas” to the Homeland Security Grant program, and started steering grant money toward new perceived threats. At that time, the DHS established four new National Priority Areas for the grant money: cybersecurity; protection of soft targets, information sharing; and emergent threats.

The DHS required grantees to spend 20 percent of the grant money they receive across these four areas, with minimum spending percentages for each area.

In 2023, the DHS added two more priority areas: election security and combating domestic violent extremism.

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The DHS has not fully documented the rationale and process used for adding these new priorities, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report released this week.
How DHS National Priority Areas have changed in recent years. (Government Accountability Office) (GAO)
How DHS National Priority Areas have changed in recent years. (Government Accountability Office) (GAO)

GAO recommends the DHS fully document the rationale and process for making these changes, and to have FEMA reach out to grant recipients, so they have a voice in the changes.

This matters because the DHS has a process of four steps to change the National Priority Areas. One step includes hearing and documenting the needs of stakeholders, including the intelligence community, National Security Council, governors, emergency management officers, leaders at the county level, mayors, and a host of others.

Neither the DHS nor FEMA documented the rationale, information used, or stakeholders consulted that factored into changing the National Priority Areas, the GAO report reads.

FEMA officials were unable to provide documentation that captured the methodology used, nor could they identify specific stakeholders consulted year-to-year who advised on defining the most serious threats for each National Priority Area.

Most grantees told GAO that FEMA conducted little to no outreach seeking feedback.

“Grantees said it was difficult to meet requirements for some National Priority Areas, such as election security,” the GAO report reads. “Grantees told us they had challenges meeting the election security National Priority Area due to a lack of subject matter expertise; availability of grant funding for election security under the Help America Vote Act of 2002; or absence of a regional need to address this issue.”

One grantee told researchers their jurisdiction used the money to buy a single security barrier to satisfy the election security requirement.

Another grantee said they had previously heavily invested in cybersecurity, but the minimum allocations forced them to spend more in this area than they would have otherwise.

A DHS representative responded to the report with a letter advising GAO that it agrees with the recommendations and is currently taking steps to improve its risk assessment model.

Here are some examples of ways DHS grant money can be spent by state and local officials on the six national priority areas:

Enhancing cybersecurity

  • Cybersecurity risk assessments
  • Migrating online services to the .gov internet domain
  • Cybersecurity training and planning

Combating domestic violent extremism

  • Analysis of online “disinformation and misinformation,” targeted violence, and threats to life, including tips/leads and online/social media-based threats
  • Execution and management of threat assessment programs to identify, evaluate, and analyze indicators and behaviors

Enhancing election security

  • Adding physical security measures such as locks, shatterproof glass, alarms, and access controls
  • Targeting online harassment
  • Public awareness/preparedness campaigns discussing election security and integrity measures

Enhancing the protection of soft targets and crowded places

  • Physical security enhancements
  • Security cameras and closed-circuit television
  • Adding fencing, gates, and other barriers.
  • Unmanned aircraft detection
  • Enhancing information, intelligence sharing, and analysis
  • Fusion center operations
  • Identification, assessment, and reporting of threats of violence
  • Joint intelligence analysis training and planning with DHS officials and other entities designated by the DHS

Enhancing community preparedness and resilience

  • Establish, train, and maintain Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) focusing on historically underserved communities
  • Provide continuity training, such as FEMA’s Organizations Preparing for Emergency Needs training, to faith-based organizations, local businesses, and community-based organizations such as homeless shelters, food pantries, nonprofit medical providers, and senior care facilities to bolster their resilience to all hazards
  • Partner with local school districts to deliver the Student Tools for Emergency Planning curriculum

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