This week, the homeland security community lost of one of its original architects. Michael Wermuth, whose contributions to the field began before 9/11 and continued for the past fifteen years, passed on Nov. 1 at age 69.
When Mike joined the RAND Corporation in 1999, his first task was to serve as executive director of the Gilmore Commission, a congressionally charted panel of security experts chaired by then Governor of Virginia James Gilmore. Formally known as the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, the commission assessed the terror threat (which it judged to be dire) and evaluated first responder preparedness (which it found lacking).
Though the commission had a chairman (a sitting governor and RNC chairman), it also had in Mike a maestro who quietly guided the panel to achieve its congressional mandate. This was no easy task with such an august group that included academicians, state/local government leaders, and retired generals (including future Director of National Intelligence James Clapper).
At the time, I worked on Capitol Hill for the commission’s congressional sponsor. That member of Congress was a hands-on guy, and he frequently participated in the commission’s meetings. He also asked me to be his “eyes and ears” with the commission. Where others might have rebuffed congressional oversight—and certainly a pesky congressional staffer—Mike welcomed my participation. Mike was thus adept at both navigating the political landscape and mentoring this future homeland security professional.
Before I met Mike, he already had a distinguished career, including as deputy assistant secretary of defense and a deputy assistant attorney general. Earlier he was a practicing attorney. He had also served 30 years in the U.S. Army, retiring at the rank of colonel.
I recall him sharing his unique legal and operational experience during Gilmore Commission meetings, on topics ranging from Posse Comitatus (the law prohibiting the use of the military for domestic law enforcement) to the need for proper privacy and civil liberties protections for the panel’s intelligence reform recommendations.
By the time the fifth (and final) annual report was published at the end of 2003, the U.S. government had adopted 125 of the commission’s 144 recommendations. This was a remarkable feat and a testament to Mike’s and the panel’s wisdom (and persistence). Later Mike would tell me that he went back through all of the reports and decided they actually had 164 recommendations, 146 of which had been adopted. I think he increased the denominator to set the bar higher for himself at RAND in the decade that followed.
The unresolved recommendation that irked him the most was the commission’s recommendation to reform congressional oversight of homeland security.
In 1999, long before 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security, and congressional homeland security committees, the Commission had found:
In much the same way that the complexity of the Federal bureaucratic structure is an obstacle—from a state and local perspective—to the provision of effective and efficient Federal assistance, it appears that the Congress has made most of its decisions for authority and funding to address domestic preparedness and response issues with little or no coordination. The various committees of the Congress continue to provide authority and money within the confines of each committee’s jurisdiction over one or a limited number of Federal agencies and programs.
Thus, the commission had recommended consolidating oversight into a single congressional committee.
Although Mike retired from RAND in 2010, we kept in touch. Last year I emailed him my op-ed calling on Congress to rationalize its oversight of homeland security, fifteen years after the Gilmore Commission had first recommended the same.
He replied, “Don’t ever give up on me.”
Well, Mike, I still haven’t given up.