DHS: Year Eight

The Department of Homeland Security's panel discussion among the department's current and former secretaries on its eighth anniversary. (Photo by Roshan Nebhrajani/ Medill News Service)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security commemorated its eighth anniversary Wednesday with a roundtable discussion featuring current Secretary Janet Napolitano and her two predecessors.

Flanked by former secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, Napolitano chronicled the evolution of homeland security since the department’s establishment in 2003. The three DHS secretaries answered questions posed by moderator NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Congress members and audience members.

“I think part of what makes homeland security such a complex and challenging position is its easier to say what you don’t worry about than what you do worry about at any given time,” current Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said.

“I think you have to go back and take a snapshot at what the government looked like right after 9/11 […] everything is evolving from that place.” Ridge said. “I started and Mike followed and secretary Napolitano is still trying to do all of the business-like integration. We’re still trying to make it a more efficient organization internally. If we’re more efficient internally, we’ll be more effective externally.”

The conversation quickly turned to the department’s most well-known agency, the Transportation Security Administration. Mitchell addressed the department’s tendency to place priority on airline security over other transport systems like subways and trains.

“This is about risk management, this is not about risk elimination,” Chertoff said. “You do have to prioritize. What you look at is potential impact.”

He then went on to compare an accident killing tens of thousands of people versus a tragedy that killed ten: “I know it’s not fashionable to make a distinction in numbers, but realistically it’s policy making, you have to look at that difference,” Chertoff said.

Mitchell challenged the secretaries to reflect on the role of luck in three recent incidents. During last year’s attempted bombing of Times square, two street vendors notified authorities of smoke emerging from Faisal Shahzad’s car where a bomb was hidden. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab’s attempted Christmas day airplane bombing last December was largely avoided by the actions of the flight crew and passengers on board. Saudi intelligence foiled the Yemeni cargo bomb plot directed towards synagogues in Chicago.

Napolitano emphasized citizen responsibility in strengthening national security.

“With the national threat growing and evolving […] I believe the public has matured and is maturing in its recognition in what security and risks are,” Napolitano said. She went on to tout the “If you see something, say something campaign,” a public awareness outreach effort encouraging citizens to identify and report threats.

All three secretaries recognized the growing threat of cyber security, encouraging young members of the audience to consider joining the DHS team.

“[Hackers] who are really good have not thought about working for the government…but we are talking to young people about work in public service,” Napolitano said.

“The wealth of experience and capability in the private sector ought to be brought in,” Ridge said. “We need to trust Americans who want to work for the government, particularly in the area of cyber security.”