State Perspective: Interview with James W. McMahon
As the third director of New York’s Office of Homeland Security (OHS), James W. McMahon’s chief mission is to prevent terrorism on the same turf that has become forever linked with the air attacks that triggered America’s war against extremists. A cop for 37 years on the New York State Police squad, McMahon rose from trooper to superintendent before Governor George Pataki appointed him to the OHS post in August 2003. The Rochester, New York native is also chairman of the state’s Disaster Preparedness Commission. He shared some thoughts on his job with Security Management. (His remarks have been edited to accommodate space limitations.)
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE YOU HAVE FACED SINCE TAKING THE JOB?
The biggest challenge is trying to coordinate efforts with the multiple agencies and disciplines at the federal, state, and local level, so we are working in concert to be prepared to respond as a team, understanding incident command and unified command and any type of a disaster or all-hazards situation.
And when it comes to terrorism, creating information-sharing systems and being able to take that intelligence information, operationalize it, get it out to the appropriate law enforcement, fire, first responder community, or the private sector that might be impacted by the threat.
We’ve implemented some programs that have been effective. Some of them we think are leading the way from a state standpoint, with our counterterrorism zones and network, and our Upstate New York Regional Intelligence Center [UNYRIC], which in many ways is being looked at as a national model for state fusion centers.
WHAT ARE THE TOP ISSUES YOUR DEPARTMENT FOCUSES ON?
Information sharing and intelligence, plus training and exercises are extremely important. But probably one of the main issues we have going is creating a state preparedness center in the Utica-Rome area. We’ve been working very diligently toward doing that.
One of the key things we are doing, which we don’t really think has been done, is a needs assessment, especially as it relates to the world we live in, post-9-11. We are surveying first responders as to what their needs are from a training point of view. How they feel about their ability to respond based on training they have had. We’re overlaying that on a state map. Are there geographic areas that have had less training? Better training? We’re going to tie our intelligence center to it so we’re always reviewing the training curriculum as to what the current threat is.
The training and the exercises are so critical. It’s why in many ways the Israelis are so effective in responding. They are constantly drilling, and their responses are so coordinated and effective.
Another area is critical infrastructure protection. Our legislature has mandated that we do a security assessment at the energy-producing facilities—electric, steam, water, natural gas—to evaluate levels of security there. Those are very involved projects.
WHAT HAS SURPRISED YOU MOST SINCE YOU’VE BEEN ON THE JOB?
The complexities of the issues that are involved in homeland security. CBRNE [chemical, biological, radiological/nuclear, and explosives incidents], food safety, ports, mass transit, the emerging technologies in the areas of detection and monitoring—which still needs a lot of development when it comes to the biological area—the potential for cyberattacks and trying to implement the number of federal programs in a state that is governed by home rule—defined as the delegation of power from the state to its subunits of governments.
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS FOR THE DEPARTMENT IN THE COMING YEAR?
No attack. We want to continue the enhancement of our intelligence center and our counterterrorism network. We’re in the process of turning that into a two-way enhanced system which will allow us to do outreach, alerts, and advisories to critical sectors. Other goals include pandemic preparedness, the training center, the new funding program.
Another goal is the Public Security Certificate Program. We funded the initial program with homeland security funds. Now that is going into its second year. SUNY-Albany [State University of New York, University at Albany] is maturing that program and offering a certificate program. That is important because everyone is looking for crime analysts.
WHAT KIND OF COOPERATION DO YOU GET FROM THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT?
You know, you read a lot about it. I have to say we’ve been very fortunate at the federal level that we deal with here locally. Prior to 9-11 and after 9-11, the FBI has always been very forthcoming with us. But the problem is you’re dealing with huge bureaucracies, and I think we all struggle to figure out how to streamline those bureaucracies.
WOULD YOU SAY THE BIGGEST BUREAUCRACY YOU HAVE TO DEAL WITH IS THE DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY ITSELF?
No, I’d say the biggest bureaucracy is the overall federal bureaucracy. Homeland Security is huge. I really don’t think Tom Ridge gets the credit he deserves. He was mandated to bring 22 agencies and 180,000 people together who had never been together before, and a new alert system. Outside of that, you’re dealing with the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services]. We know who to go to usually, but trying to get that process integrated into a streamlined fashion at the federal level is not easy.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE CHANGES IN THE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, AND WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO CHANGE?
The biggest change we want to see—and the one that is occurring the slowest—is that we want a seat at the table, at the planning stage of programs that impact at the state and local level. And I think that’s universal. We also want intelligence that is actionable.
HOW ARE YOU INVOLVING OR WORKING WITH BUSINESSES IN NEW YORK TO SHARE INTELLIGENCE, DEVELOP COUNTERTERRORISM STRATEGIES, AND PREPARE FOR EMERGENCY RESPONSE?
With the private sector, one of the things that we do is take the alerts or advisories we put out to law enforcement—which go out in a classified format—and rewrite them in an unclassified format, and get them out to sectors that might be impacted using the information-sharing analysis centers.
What we are in the process of doing is enhancing our law enforcement counterterrorism network to a portal system that will allow us to provide that information to certain sectors. We hope to unveil that by the end of the summer.
The second area that we have done is Operation Safeguard. Operation Safeguard is where we get state and local law enforcement to go around to more than 100 businesses that we’ve identified: rental facilities, pool supplies, paintball facilities, fertilizer sales, and we talk to them about what might be suspicious activity, and encourage them to call if they see any.