Interview with David E. Liebersbach
Originally from California, David E. Liebersbach moved to Alaska in 1970 to be a rookie smokejumper for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). He later headed the Alaska Division of Emergency Services before being assigned to oversee what became the state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management division in 2003.
What does your job consist of?
There are two or three primary responsibilities. I work within the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. I don’t answer directly to the governor; I work through the adjutant general. In Alaska, the homeland security department is combined with emergency management.
As the homeland security side of this, I oversee the structure for the state’s homeland security program in terms of the work we do with business, local government, and our contacts with the federal government—the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] and law enforcement agencies. The responsibility is also to coordinate other state agencies in becoming better prepared to deal with homeland security issues.
We have a very close relationship in Alaska with our Department of Defense, because we are physically located on an active military installation here. One half is Army, one half is Air Force. We have to work with them on their security, and they are a great backup force.
The other agency we work with often is the U.S. Coast Guard. Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the United States combined. We have the largest Coast Guard base in America. We work with them on potential maritime intrusion, whether on cruise ships, merchant vessels, or ferries.
What is the number-one priority of homeland security in alaska?
From a physical standpoint, it’s the pipeline and the energy industry. The priority is to make sure we have an integrated, coordinated plan between state, local, and federal governments.
What’s the biggest challenge you have faced since taking the job?
The biggest challenge has been the lack of focus within the federal Department of Homeland Security. Sometimes trying to coordinate with DHS, with its constant changing, is challenging.
It’s a huge undertaking to try to pull a department like that together. But about the time you know who to talk to, someone else is coming in, or they have reorganized it, or there are new requirements to use the funding.
There’s also the challenge of getting credibility with local field offices of federal agencies, primarily with law enforcement. It took a while, but we are getting there with the FBI and U.S. Marshals. Our challenge was to be considered partners with the Department of Justice in this security arena.
What are some of the other top issues your department focuses on?
One of the top issues is to remind the rest of the United States that we are part of the country. Once a bad guy gets into Alaska, he’s inside the United States, and it’s easy to get to the Lower 48.
For example, the remote community of Dillingham has a tremendous fishing fleet in the summer. Many of the workers in the fleet are foreign nationals. If you were to go through security at Dillingham to get on a commercial flight back to Anchorage, from Anchorage you can fly nonstop to Seattle; Salt Lake City; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco and Los Angeles; or to Chicago. And you got into the system in a remote community in Alaska.
We have a huge border in Alaska from which to get into the system. The biggest issue isn’t that Alaska will be attacked, but we could easily be the conduit for people to get in, particularly when other U.S. points of entry are hardened.
What has surprised you most since being on the job?
One of the biggest surprises is that targets in Alaska have shown up when they have captured intelligence and documents in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What are your goals for the department in the coming year?
We’ve just gotten going on a pretty aggressive exercise program. It’s a three-year program. We need to get our local communities on a regular exercise program. One of my goals is to energize them and make them realize they are at risk.
What kind of cooperation do you get from the federal government?
It’s good, particularly the local representatives of the federal government, like from the Fish and Wildlife service here, or the U.S. Coast Guard people here.
Our ties with the Department of the Defense up here are very close. I’m a former federal employee with the Department of Interior, so our ties with those folks are very good. That’s important because they have oversight of half the oil pipeline, and they are also the biggest landholder in Alaska.
What would you like to see change in your relationship with the federal government?
I think the DHS or any federal agency really needs to consider the state as an equal partner. I would like to change the attitude that there is some pyramid with the federal government on top. I’d like to see the attitude of putting it all on a horizontal scale.
What funding does the federal government give you? What are the department’s other sources of funding?
We get the homeland security grants for state and local governments. This year it will be $7 million or $8 million. Then there are the emergency management preparedness grants worth a few million. Health and Human Services funds also come in for bioterrorism preparedness.
We also get appropriations from our state legislature to fund personnel, operations, and travel expenditure. We also get a small amount from a tax on oil production that mainly goes to local emergency management planning.
Do you think the funding is sufficient?
Yes, I do…. But if we did have more money, we would try to harden sites mostly related to the oil industry.
We could always use more law enforcement capability. Our troopers are scattered pretty thin given the size and population of the state. I don’t think people realize how big we are. If you put the southeastern tip of Alaska on Orlando, Florida, the northernmost point of Alaska would fall on the Chicago/Minneapolis area, and the very farthest tip of southwestern Alaska would be off the coast of California, west of Los Angeles.
How are you working with businesses in the state to share intelligence, develop counterterrorism strategies, and prepare for emergency response?
We work with the oil industry, such as British Petroleum and ConocoPhillips, on their emergency management, and security personnel are working with us on response plans for their facilities.
We’re also doing the same with Alaska Airlines and other transportation carriers. On any given day, Alaska has more tonnage of air cargo come through it than the next three airports in the United States combined.
We also work with major food distributors. Because we’re so dependent on the Lower 48, and we don’t have much food warehousing, we need to make sure it gets distributed to the communities.