WASHINGTON – The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report, GAO-09-849, requested by a bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators that raises concerns about fundamental operations at the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), specifically its inconsistent coordination when exercising in collaboration with the very State, local, and tribal governments that the Command was created to support.
The report, entitled Homeland Defense: U.S. Northern Command Has a Strong Exercise Program, but Involvement of Interagency Partners and States Can Be Improved, was requested by Congressman Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-MO), co-chairmen of the Senate Guard Caucus and members of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense, Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (ID-CT), Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Susan M. Collins (R-ME), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and Congressman Gene Taylor (D-MS), Co-Chair of the House Guard and Reserve Caucus.
NORTHCOM was established by the Department of Defense in 2002 to oversee defense of the homeland and to coordinate military support missions to the Department of Homeland Security and the States. GAO found that despite some progress, NORTHCOM lacks sufficient experience dealing with States, still lacks understanding of each individual State emergency management structure, does not consistently involve States in major command readiness endeavors such as disaster planning exercises, and must improve its ability to share key information such as lessons learned and after action reports. GAO found that while it is understood that federal agencies and state and local governments must integrate disaster response planning and exercising to ensure an effective response, more work must be done to realize this necessity. A lack of standard processes and protocols for regularly working with State and local governments increases the risk that the intended benefit of NORTHCOM exercises may not be realized or that a disaster response may be disjointed.
Chairman Thompson commented: “NORTHCOM must work even harder to operate seamlessly with State, local, and tribal governments throughout the country. Anything less than total synergy and collaboration in our nation’s disaster planning and exercise programs is unacceptable and avoidable. NORTHCOM has made progress over the years, but we shouldn’t have to cross our fingers and hope the Command has strong relationships with an affected State, we should be able to count on it. The task of operating a military command for the United States is a difficult one that can be best achieved through strong partnerships with State National Guard Units and our State and local leaders.”
Senator Leahy stated: “It is concerning that GAO has determined that NORTHCOM, the lead command at the Department of Defense for national disaster planning, has not consistently involved states in large-scale disaster preparations. And perhaps even more troubling is that GAO concludes that NORTHCOM cannot ensure that it has met internal standards for planning and execution of joint exercises.”
Senator Lieberman commented: “NORTHCOM, like the Department of Homeland Security, is a new organization that has made great strides while navigating through difficult, uncharted waters. I am pleased that NORTHCOM has acknowledged the gaps in coordination that GAO found – which are certainly not unique to NORTHCOM – and I will be monitoring closely how they are resolved.”
Senator Collins said: “Although NORTHCOM has made some progress in developing a comprehensive exercise program, this GAO report demonstrates that NORTHCOM needs to do more to collect and share lessons learned from those exercises and to ensure greater participation from other Federal, State, local, and tribal governments. I encourage General Renuart and DOD leadership to address these shortcomings in a timely fashion.”
Senator Bond noted: “This report underscores the need for NorthCom to coordinate with and support the state and local officials and Guardsmen who know their own backyards better than anyone else,” said Bond, co-chair of the Senate Guard Caucus. “The citizen soldiers and airmen in the National Guard are not only highly trained for disaster mitigation and homeland defense, but also are members of the impacted communities which they serve.”