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Homeland Defense Effort Taking Off, Officials Say

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 17, 2003 - In its short existence, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense has established good working relationships with all homeland security players, said one of the office's top officials.

Peter Verga, principal deputy assistant defense secretary for homeland defense, said the relationship among law enforcement agencies, the new Department of Homeland Security, the newly operational U.S. Northern Command and his office are helping to make the United States more secure.

The setup could have been a disaster, with competing lines of authority and conflicting missions. Instead, it has been a collegial exercise in which all players are working together to formulate plans and processes to protect the United States and its citizens, he said.

Verga explained the differences between DoD's homeland defense mission and that of the Homeland Security Department.

"We have a national strategy for homeland security, which is the protection of the (United States) from terrorist attacks, the reduction of vulnerability from terrorist attacks, and the mitigation and recovery from terrorist attacks, should they occur," he said. "That mission belongs to the Department of Homeland Security.

"In DoD," he continued, "we undertake homeland defense, which is the traditional military defense of United States people, U.S. territory (and) critical infrastructure against external threats and aggression."

Both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom are part of the homeland defense mission, Verga said. In two short years, the U.S. military has routed the Taliban and freed Afghanistan from an oppressive, autocratic regime.

The U.S. military also has deposed Saddam Hussein, liberating 23 million Iraqis. Both of these operations take the war to the terrorists, Verga said.

"Our principal role in the defense of our nation is to attack the enemies of the United States where they live, as opposed to letting them attack us where we live," he said. "That overseas, worldwide war on terrorism is the department's principal contribution to making the homeland more secure."

Still, he said, the U.S. military has a role in homeland defense, and the department had made changes that made the country more secure even before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Since Sept. 11, that pace accelerated, he added. The military made changes in the worldwide command structure, most notably establishing the U.S. Northern Command, which went to full operations capability on Sept. 11, 2003.

This command unified the three areas of defense of the United States: maritime, air and land.

"For the first time, they are under a single unified commander," Verga said. "The combatant commander is responsible for all three domains." In the past, the North American Aerospace Defense Command -- a combined U.S.-Canadian command -- managed air defense, and U.S. Joint Forces Command handled land and sea defense.

The other major reorganization was establishing Verga's office. That office formally stood up in March.

"We are charged with the overall supervision of the homeland defense activities of the department, and provide the guidance and policy direction necessary to provide that homeland defense," he said. Former Congressman Paul McHale is the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense.

Verga said communication is superb among all the homeland security players, on both an individual level and at the highest levels of government. All are working to formulate the homeland defense vision and are drafting their plans to implement a unified layered defense of the territory of the United States, he said.

The new office is the advocate within the department's budgetary process for the resources necessary to carry out the homeland defense function. Verga said his office works more closely with U.S. Northern Command than other DoD offices do. He said the relationship is similar to the way the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict works with U.S. Special Operations Command.

Verga said senior leaders from U.S. Northern Command visit Washington frequently, and members of his office work in Colorado Springs, Colo., with members of the command.

On the homeland security side, there is a close working relationship between DoD and DHS. Verga said 65 DoD employees work with the Department of Homeland Security "to ensure close and seamless cooperation between the departments."

Still, even with a good beginning there is more to do, he said. Verga said what keeps him up at night is what he isn't worrying about.

"I'm worried we're not worrying about something we haven't even thought of," he said. "That is the greatest challenge. DoD plans better than anyone in the world, but you have to know what we're up against. We're working on that."