Interview with Richard Cañas
Richard “Dick” Cañas was tapped in March 2006 to head the state’s newly established Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness. Cañas joined the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a special agent in 1972, and in 1990, President George H. W. Bush nominated him to the National Security Council, where he served as director for counternarcotics and counterterrorism. In 1994, Cañas became the DEA’s advisor to the Central Intelligence Agency on Latin American issues, after which he headed the nonprofit Concurrent Technologies Corporation, which serves the emergency response community. (His remarks have been edited to accommodate space limitations. Read the full interview online.)
What are the basic responsibilities of your job? What is a typical day or week like?
My basic responsibilities, I would say, are prevention and preparedness. Coordination with the private sector and the public sector is really the one that eats up a lot of the time. An average day here is meetings, meetings, meetings, because we’re not necessarily an operational agency. Our mission is really to coordinate—to make sure that the agencies charged with the mission are doing their job and have the resources that they need.
Your agency is relatively young. How does it divide responsibilities with the older state office of emergency management (OEM)?
We oversee the Office of Emergency Management, which is run by the state police. They are the state agency that would respond to any state emergency. They have a dual reporting role to my office and also to the state attorney general. In that regard, we divide up the roles. They do the operations; we do policy and planning.
How has your background helped you on the job?
I also fought the war on drugs. There were very similar policy planning requirements because the force multiplier was the interagency process, which not all of law enforcement uses to perfection. You can’t do it in a silo. And I spent four years on the National Security Council at the White House, and that’s primarily how they conduct business, because they are not operational per se. Our job is to ensure that other people are doing theirs.
What has surprised you most on the job?
The biggest surprise is a pleasant one, frankly. When I left the government in 1998, information sharing between the federal government and the state and local levels was pretty sad. What I was pleasantly surprised to see is that right now, we have the opportunity at the state and local level to work shoulder to shoulder with the federal government. We’re not entirely there, but it’s a dramatic change from when I left government.
What kind of cooperation do you receive from the federal government?
Right now, post-Katrina, the support we’re getting from the preparedness side, the FEMA side of Homeland Security, is dramatically improved. Very proactive. The information flow from the federal government down to us is not an impediment for us. That said, the other way around seems to be a little lacking; and by that I mean their ability to take our home-grown information, analyze it, then give some results back to us so that we can get early warning on patterns across the country. It’s an area that they’re working hard to improve on, but it is not yet occurring.
How would you characterize your funding?
This is my pet peeve. The federal money that comes down to us is deficient in the sense that it keeps being reduced every year. In 2006, for example, we received a 5 percent reduction. In the last three to four years federal funding to states and local agencies across the country has dropped by more than 50 percent. I frankly don’t understand it. The threat has not been reduced. As a national problem it requires a national response. The state money will only pay for normal operations. But if they want us to tool up with counterterrorism initiatives at the state and local level, as in training police officers in counterterrorism methods, that’s not a homegrown threat. And it’s not that we weren’t busy before all of this started.
What is the state doing to protect critical infrastructure, in particular chemical and industrial sites?
Well, in New Jersey we have some of the strictest laws when it comes to the protection of critical infrastructure, especially chemicals. And the private sector has contributed more than $100 million of their own money to buffer up some of these critical infrastructures where they found deficiencies. They deserve credit for that.
We’ve set up the Infrastructure Advisory Committee to solicit input on a variety of initiatives, not the least of which is the idea of shoring up rail security, which is a sector that frankly is considered here more important than petroleum and chemical. Mass transit security, especially rail, is probably our number one risk here when it comes to counterterrorism. So in that regard, we’re investing a lot of that critical infrastructure money in that arena.
Has the state conducted any drills or simulations? What did officials learn?
We’ve had several drills, mainly on hurricanes at the beginning of the hurricane season, and we’ve had several on pandemics. Those are megadisasters. The key points that have come out of those drills are the fact that frankly we are not totally prepared for a megadisaster. But we are planning. We have ideas on how to improve weak areas such as identifying special-needs people ahead of time so that we know how to respond during one of these megadisasters.
During the events that we have had that were state emergencies—those were the floods in June and the closure of government here at the end of our fiscal year in July—those required a statewide response. And during those times the communication and the response from the Office of Emergency Management were exemplary. They were right there, there was no loss of life, there was a quick response from FEMA, and so in that regard, both FEMA and OEM get very high marks.
Does your agency coordinate its efforts with the private sector? How would you characterize the private sector involvement?
We need to work more closely with the private sector. That’s popped up at every one of these exercises. The private sector in New Jersey controls 85 percent of the infrastructure. It does not make sense to exclude them from these exercises. That’s an issue that was glaring.
What are your goals for the coming year?
One of them is to shore up interoperability. There are still spots within the state that do not communicate with each other. In the longer term, it’s unifying the entire emergency response community. That’s a big effort because in New Jersey 80 to 85 percent of our fire and emergency services are volunteer. We have a serious retention and recruiting problem with these volunteers, and we want to unify them and give them a more significant role with OEM. It’s a longer term goal because we do have home rule here, so it has a lot of moving parts to it.