Interview with Maj. Gen. Mason C. Whitney, director of the Colorado Governor's Office of Homeland Security
Maj. Gen. Mason C. Whitney (U.S. Air Force Reserve, retired) has served as director of the Colorado Governor’s Office of Homeland Security since February 2008. Previously, he was the state’s adjutant general and executive director of its Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Whitney’s 39-year military career included 343 combat missions as a forward air controller at Ban Me Thout Special Forces Camp, South Vietnam, flying the O-2A Skymaster over Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Whitney joined the Colorado Air National Guard in August 1979, and in 1990 was named commander of the 140th Tactical Fighter Wing. In 1998, Whitney was appointed Air National Guard assistant to the commander of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, and was promoted to major general. Whitney’s military awards include the Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Meritorious Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with eight oak leaf clusters, the Air Force Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters, the Vietnam Service Medal with four bronze stars, the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, and the Colorado Meritorious Service Medal.
Q. What are your office’s responsibilities?
A. The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security was essentially established in February of 2008 and we became operational July 1 of last year. I am the director, and that’s a cabinet-level position. I work directly for the governor. I am his homeland security advisor, and my office is the state administrative agency for the state of Colorado for federal homeland security funding.
Q. How was the state’s homeland security apparatus reorganized, and why?
Well, there’s been an evolution here in Colorado since the homeland security program started back in 2002. We started with everything under the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) under then-Public Safety Director Sue Mencer. And Sue had an extensive background with the FBI, and she served as both HSA and the SAA, and they ran the grants program and the state’s homeland security strategy out of her office.
They had some problems. Sue left and went to be director of the Office of Domestic Preparedness at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and so they had a new director come in, and had some problems with the grant administration program for the homeland security grants within DPS. So then they moved the grant program into the state Division of Emergency Management (DEM) under the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA). The director of emergency management had responsibility for administering the federal Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP) and DPS had responsibility for the Governor’s homeland security advisor position. And they kind of divided duties on who was supposed to build the homeland security strategy, and essentially that was finally delegated to DEM and the director of DEM built the first state homeland security strategy.
Then we had an audit in 2005 that essentially said our grants administration program was broken, that we had some funds that were not being properly executed in accordance with the grant guidance. The second finding was that our state homeland security strategy was ineffective and not accountable, and the third was that our organizational structure did not allow for integration and collaboration of all the homeland security missions, effectively it was in stovepipes and in many cases was divided among several different people as a part-time responsibility. So it was obviously not a very flattering report for the two main organizations responsible for homeland security, DPS and DOLA.
So fast-forward to 2007 when Gov. Ritter took office. One of the first things he was he was told was that the state’s homeland security program was broken and needed to be fixed. So he essentially went to members of his cabinet—I was one of them with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs—and he asked for recommendations about where to place the homeland security program address all of the problems. After several recommendations were floated the governor favored one that essentially merged DEM into DPS so the entire homeland security program would be put back into DPS again, but that was resisted by many of the emergency managers within the state. So instead the Governor moved toward creating a transitional entity under his office. I had already told the governor that I planned to retire, and so he told me that I had another job waiting for me after I did.
So I retired from the military in May of 2007 and in August the governor asked me to come in as the homeland security coordinator for about a year. I told him I’d come in for him for a year on a year’s contract and essentially do a complete study of the state’s homeland security program, how it was being managed to include the grant funding programs and make recommendations to him at the end of that year about what needs to be done to fix the problems found in the audit.
So I brought in our ex-state auditor, Joanne Hill, and she and I basically comprised the beginnings of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, so to speak. We did a complete study. We took a team out and went out to all the regions and determined what their concerns were. After that I essentially built a new strategy that I felt would be more effective than the old one, which I thought really focused on target capabilities and capabilities-based emergency planning. We also recommended that the grants program receive additional staffing. And finally, we recommended a formal organizational change to create an office of homeland security working directly for the governor that would have the proper authority to be able to manage the homeland security programs and all the different departments and pieces and hold those agencies’ administrators, who we call “goal leaders,” accountable for implementing the strategy.
So effective Feb. 4, 2008, the governor signed an executive order that created the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, and then we put a budget in that would allow us to receive and spend federal funds. Down the road we may also receive some state general funds, probably around the years 2012-2014.
The first of July 2008 we became operational, and we’ve been working hard ever since to implement our new strategy and our grant management function. DHS has come in on two different monitoring visits and has been very complementary about what we’ve been doing. We had a state audit just recently on our grant management program with no findings, so we’re pretty pleased with the direction that’s gone in. Of course I credit that to our former state auditor Joanne Hill who just did a great job of developing a grants policy and procedures manual that essentially has standardized all our grants operations and monitoring of those grants.
Q. Could you provide an example of how the process was broken?
A. As I looked into the program management, what it appeared happened in the past was that the state decided what we wanted to buy, and then built a strategy to justify the expenditures. So what we’ve tried to do is turn that process around. We’ve said, let’s really engage in a strategy that builds preparedness and allows us to be able to measure that preparedness with that strategy, and then determine after that, based on that strategy, what the priorities are for investments that we need to make to build those capabilities that we think are the most important, the highest priority for the state.
The state essentially starts off with this strategy, which once again is based on the target capabilities. And we’ve established five major goals, and each of those has a goal champion which is an executive director of one of the state departments. And those five major goals correspond with the National Homeland Security Strategy and the National Preparedness Guidelines. The five major goals are prevention, protection, response, recovery, and the fifth one is to strengthen homeland security systems. And within them there are a total of 37 target capabilities. What we did is establish objectives with outcomes, each equating to a target capability.
We have capabilities assessments that we do every year with all the regions, and then we have a statewide assessment we do with an improvement planning conference once a year that essentially brings all our goal leaders to roll up all the assessments that we’ve done for all the different regions into an overall statewide assessment. That helps us determine where we are with that particular goal.
In the improvement planning conference we essentially go in and ask and try to answer four questions: First, what is the biggest threat to Colorado? We go through the national planning scenarios, and we have seven state planning scenarios we’ve built as a result of building our state homeland security strategy. The second question we ask is, what’s our current level of capability in order to be able to respond to those highest-priority threats. The next question is, what’s the required level of capability, in other words how high a capability do we need to have statewide, but also by region. What capability is required per region as well. And then what we do is a gap analysis that says how do we get from the current level of capability to the required level of capability by investing in, you know, planning, organization, equipment, training, exercise, in order to answer the fourth question: How do we build capability with investments in those particular programs. Then we develop targets based on that that will go in to the state preparedness report.
Those findings are then used in our training and exercise planning workshop (TEPW), which happens a month after our improvement planning conference. The TEPW builds a three-year exercise and training plan for the state that basically allows us to determine where we need to make investments funding wise with exercises and training. And we take all that information and we put it into our investment justifications for the grants. And that’s going on right now. So that’s how that all kind of fits together.
Q. What assets and threats make Colorado unique?
A. We talk a lot about the things that will happen and the things that may happen. And of course the things that will happen in the state of Colorado are wildfires, blizzards, tornadoes, and floods. Those are the things we spend a lot of time planning for, we spend a lot of time preparing for, ensuring that you know our first responders obviously are capable of being able to do their jobs.
We of course need to be prepared for terrorist attacks, we need to be prepared for all of those 15 different national planning scenarios. So those threats are not discounted, but what we try to do is make sure we understand that the “will happen” is going to be on the horizon real soon, the “may happen” may or may not be on the horizon, but we still need to be able to prepare for those. But what we have to consider the limited resources we have, we have to prioritize that. So we’ve done that, obviously through the process I just talked about.
So the threats though that are on the horizon for us that we know are going to come is that we have a lot of beetle kill in our forests here in the state of Colorado. A million acres up there right now that have been affected by beetle kill. We have these great assets called mountains that really kind of identify Colorado, and of course as soon as those mountains catch fire, then it’s obviously a big hazard not only for the people who live in those mountains but obviously for the economy of the state that depends largely on the tourists that visit those mountains. So those are the things that we’re really working on is to ensure how we mitigate those vulnerabilities from beetle kill that we have right now that are up in the mountains.
We know we’re going to have a tornado probably once or twice a year, we’ve already had one back in 2006 that took out the town of Holly, we had one just this past year that took out the town of Windsor. It used to be that in Colorado we’d have tornadoes, especially out on the Eastern plains, that’s where they mostly happen because the nature of Colorado is the thunderstorms build over the mountains, move out over the plains, and right here in the eastern Colorado front range area, that’s where the large class-6 thunderstorms occur, and that’s where we get the tornadoes that are big enough to wipe out a town. Well it used to be that there weren’t any towns out there, there were pastures with cows. So nobody paid a whole lot of attention to tornadoes a long time ago, but now we have had so much growth in Colorado that those pastures are now communities, and so where the tornadoes used to just kind of roll through a pasture and then go back up into the clouds, now they roll through a town and basically they take out half the town. So those are big concerns of ours as well.
Even the forest fires, though could also be a terrorist activity as well. It could be an environmental terrorism program. The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) or the Animal Liberation Front, those folks. And we’ve already experienced attacks by the ELF folks where the Vail Mountain Resort had one of their ski areas, one of the chalets up there on the mountain that was burned down by ELF, so it’s something that obviously we have to be prepared for all of those things I think but the different levels of preparedness are going to be focused on what the priorities are.
Q. What’s been the biggest challenge?
A. I think the biggest challenge has really been the pace of operations. Nothing stopped as a result of us having all these changes. The grant programs have continued, we’ve had to manage the grants as we’ve tried to revamp the operations and processes for the grant administration programs. As we’ve developed the strategy there’s been no letup in terms of having to prepare and plan for all these natural disasters that happen. So it’s really just the pace of operations has continued and so it hasn’t taken into consideration that we’re trying to stand up a whole new office and that we’re trying to develop a whole new strategy, and implement a whole new strategy, and then essentially change a lot of culture in terms of how we’ve operated over the years in the state of Colorado. It’s kind of like trying to build a whole new caboose on a train while it’s going 60 mph.
Q. How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What would you change if you could?
A. Well, I’ve dealt with the federal government for a long time, and the National Guard has had one foot in the federal government and one foot in the state government because we have national security mission as well as a state emergency response mission. I think we’ve got an excellent relationship with our federal partners, especially the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). I think our FEMA Region VIII folks have really done a great job of reaching out to support the states in their preparation and mitigation activities. The FEMA Region VIII guys, as far as I’m concerned, have been doing a tremendous job in supporting and helping out the states that they’re responsible for. DHS as well. We’ve got good folks up there that are doing the best they can to keep the programs reasonable and realistic and understanding that every time they throw a requirement on us, it’s just, one more log on a fire there that really kind of burns a little bit too hot for us sometimes. So they’re very, I think, considerate about doing that.
The thing I would change that I think really needs to be changed is, hopefully with this new administration that’s coming in, is a little more collaboration, in fact a lot more collaboration on building grant guidance for the states for HSGP. When the grant programs started in 2002, the mentality was kind of “get the money out there as fast as you can,” because we’ve got terrorist activity that could be just around the corner, so the country had to build this huge infrastructure and organization piece all at once. And so there was a lot of money that was thrown at the states during that time and of course not much guidance on how to spend that, and the states were kind of at a loss in some cases as to how to manage that as effectively as they should have. And so I think we have a much better program now in how we’re managing those kinds of grants that have occurred, but what I think has happened in the meantime is that we’ve become more mature in the states now in terms of how we manage those programs and how we have implemented our strategies and to the point that, you know, we now understand what is required for a specific state in order to be as prepared as possible for those things that will happen and may happen. And so we tend to do a pretty good job of prioritizing those things.
And I think what happens unfortunately, though, at the DHS level, is they work with Congress to try to figure out what they think the best thing is for the states with no really in-depth knowledge about what each state needs and what the requirements are. They’re just trying to do a cookie-cutter approach that simply says “one size fits all” and that’s just not the case. That’s not something that is easily managed out there by the states or by the federal government for the states. So I think there needs to be much more collaboration in building the grant guidance that goes into how this money is spent at the state level and to give more flexibility to the states to be able to determine what the priorities are. Basically the priorities are driven by DHS and Congress. Congress really kind of, they get involved it, to a certain extent, but overall DHS dictates pretty much to Congress what the priorities are going to be, and you know then Congress appropriates the money and the next thing you know we’ve got this grant guidance that comes out that shoves things down the states’ throats that sometimes, you know, aren’t their priorities. But yet they have to go out and spend the money on these things that DHS has determined are their priorities. So if there is collaboration in building that grant guidance to start with, I think we’re much better off in terms of spending that money effectively at the state level.
I just got back from a governor’s homeland security advisors’ council that normally meets about twice a year, and we met in Monterrey, California, that’s where the Naval Postgraduate School is and of course they’ve got a big homeland security program there. But the advisors, that was the big items that we talked to the transition team for President-elect Obama for homeland security was we really need to get that collaboration piece put into the process and built into grant guidance up-front, before the grant guidance comes out to the states. What happens now is the grant guidance is built, and then there’s a comment period for a couple days that DHS sometimes allows you to take part in, and then they send it out. And most of the times they ignore the input. At least that’s what I’ve seen. Of course I’ve only been in this business for a year and a half. So, you know, it’s just something that they need to fix.
Q. How do you feel about the appointment of a former state Governor as the next Secretary of Homeland Security?
A. I think that’s an excellent choice, absolutely. Who better to know what the state requirements are better than a governor. And so absolutely. I think there are a lot of governors out there that could have been candidates for that, although I don’t know Gov. Napolitano very well, I do know the adjutant general of Arizona very well and of course he speaks highly of her, and I know that she’ll probably do a great job in that position.
Q. What did the state take away from last year’s Democratic National Convention in Denver?
A. The DNC was really a great exercise, and also a great evaluation of a lot of the things that we spent a lot of money on, interoperable communications for one thing. We found that our interoperable communications were very effective, and one of the success stories of the DNC. We also found that the cooperation and collaboration that occurred as a result of the planning processes was a great success story.
The challenges that some of the challenge that we had with the DNC, however, that is something we’re going to have to work on in the future, is just the legal issues associated with multijurisdicitonal operations, and by that I mean, if you have police departments coming in from several different jurisdictions to support a police department in a single jurisdiction, there are a lot of legal issues that, as you get into it, are really time-consuming, not the least of which is the lawyers saying “liability.” If someone from the Lakewood Police Department has to use aggressive force, up to and including possibly using his or her firearm, you know, what kind of liability does Lakewood incur as a result of supporting Denver. And there’s always a lawsuit that will occur after that, and so then who is on the hook for the lawsuit? Is it the Lakewood Police Department or the Lakewood police officers. Those legal issues are really pretty thorny issues to a certain extent, and some fairly expensive issues, because when you start talking about liability you start talking about liability insurance. You’re no longer self-insured, and of course if Lakewood sends their police department to help out the Denver Police Department, and Denver says, “OK, we’ll be responsible for it but this is a huge event we don’t have enough money to be able to self-insure ourselves with all of these other police departments and we’re a little nervous too knowing that these guys don’t work for us and we don’t know what their training has been, so we don’t really want to accept their liability, so who does accept liability? Well that’s where you come in with liability insurance. So that takes time, and you have to go find an insurer. You have to figure out who does what, and what kind of different things do you put into that insurance policy. So it turned out to be a bigger issue than I think any of us expected.
This discussion included every lawyer in every jurisdiction. To include all of the lawyers representing all of the wonderful folks who were coming here to demonstrate. They all had video cameras and everybody knew there were going to be lawsuits that were going to come at us as a result of this. So it was not like it was whether there are going to be lawsuits. It was, there are going to be lawsuits, and who are they going to be against. And we knew that was going to happen. It’s just a fact of life anymore in the type of society we live in.
And of course the big threat to a certain extent in addition to all of those other threats that we had to be concerned about, was the terrorist activity, those kind of things, is just the demonstration piece of it, where there were several demonstration groups that said, “We’re not going to worry about lawful demonstrations, we’re an anarchist groups, so we don’t believe in law, we don’t believe in government so we’re going to demonstrate any time we please, and oh, by the way, we’re going to use any tactics we want to use, up to and including assaulting police officers.” So those are the kind of threats that those folks were faced with, and we had a high threat environment with a lot of different jurisdictions being involved, and there’s always a potential for bad things to happen. Luckily they didn’t.
The Denver Police Department trained all these outside jurisdictions by the way. A lot of training that went into this, and then a lot of rules of engagement that were adhered to by all those jurisdictions. They just did a great job with that and as a result they were able to control all the situations before they occurred. Up to and including having great intelligence with some intelligence gathering programs that they had developed for the DNC which were also one of the great success stories, where they were able to go out and find the caches of all the things that some of these protest groups had put in place that were weapons that were fairly ugly weapons, you know, feces and urine and bricks and boards with nails in them, those kinds of things. They were planning on using them in direct action against police officers. So luckily we were able to find all those and get rid of them before they went in and used them.
And that was a partnership that was developed with all the Denver business community as well. Almost every large building has their own security. So the Denver Police went out, touched base with all those guys and said, “Listen, if you see anything, here’s who you call, and here’s what we do.” So there’s a lot of these things, these weapons caches that were out there, were in alleys and around dumpsters, those kinds of things; the security folks at one of buildings saw that going on, called up the Denver Police Department and said, “Hey, you’ve got guys out here who are putting some things in the alley in back of a building that looks like they could be serious things that could be used against you.” And then they go out and investigate and they next thing you know, yup, sure enough they have a big cache of weapons there that I just talked about and they went out there and had Denver Solid Waste Management went in there and picked them all up and got rid of them.
Q. How has your background helped you on the job?
A. Being involved in the military, national defense, and then obviously we do a lot with chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive, all of that, you know we’re very familiar with the types if things that terrorists would have at their disposal to use as a weapon, and of course you know we’ve practiced and exercised with different operations in support of our federal mission where we would actually go into the combat theater of operations and have to use all of those personal protective equipment items those sort of things. So I was very familiar with piece of it, so the terrorist piece of it wasn’t unfamiliar to me, and then of course with the National Guard especially as the adjutant general I was obviously deeply involved with the state’s emergency response mission. So any time you had a forest fire, any time you had a blizzard, flood, tornado, you name it, the first call was call out the Guard, get them in there to provide security, emergency medical care, airlift, firefighting capability from the air with helicopters, you know, logistics support, transporting folks, those kinds of things.
And of course I have a lot of really good relationships I’ve developed across the state after my almost eight years as the adjutant general, to where I knew a lot of the local sheriffs, I knew a lot of emergency medical folks, and of course I knew all of the state government folks, being a cabinet officer as well. So it pretty well prepared me for this job as well as being able to come in and try to figure out exactly what we needed to do and what direction we needed to go to fix all the things that the governor felt needed to be fixed.
Q. Has your office engaged the private sector? If so, how?
A. I’ve got a community preparedness program manager whose specific responsibility is to engage the community in preparedness initiatives and try to determine what they can do to help support our homeland security mission, since our state homeland security strategy is based on a collaborative approach. The vision is Colorado’s communities working together for a safer tomorrow. The whole idea is that every one of the Colorado communities whether it’s private sector, non-governmental organizations, state government, local government, you name it, all of our communities are trying to work together in this process and we’ve got several different initiatives going on. We have a community preparedness advisory council that my community preparedness program manager chairs, and they bring in private sector non-governmental organizations into this advisory council and essentially they talk about preparedness initiatives for the entire state. And then of course we’ve got that at the regional level as well. And the Citizen Corps program is part of that, but I wanted community preparedness to be more than just Citizen Corps. And so we’ve got that going on right now out of our office.
Also, within the local community itself, we’ve got a thing called the Colorado Emergency Preparedness Partnership (CEPP). And that was initiated by the Business Executives for National Security. And so that CEPP is funded by a foundation here in Colorado that essentially involves all of the state, local, government, it’s primarily right now in the Denver metro area, but it involves all the local government folks as well as all the private sector, many private sector non-governmental organizations, foundations, you name it, that basically form this partnership, and then they talk about how they can help support the homeland security mission within the state of Colorado. Pam Pfeifer is the executive director of that organization and she does a great job of developing initiatives, and she put together a program to support the DNC that essentially brought in the CDC foundation, it’s called metaleadership program, its basically we were the third state to do it; Kansas did it and I forget who the other state was that did it, but Georgia. Atlanta. But it’s the CDC foundation that sponsored it. Metaleadership is really focused on how do we get leadership within the entire community in specifically a large metropolitan area that come together from all the different organizations in the community, private sector as well as public, and try to determine what we need to do to make our communities safer. So that program’s going on as well. CEPP Is very well energized in that, they’re working on building an inventory of capability that the private sector has that the state government, local governments, could tap into to help support them. In other words, how many refrigerated trucks does Wal-Mart have that could be used in an emergency to try to transport ice or water or whatever to a community that needs it. What do we have out there, resource wise that we can tap into in the private sector that they’d be willing to support us with.
Q. What are your goals for your agency?
A. The biggest goal we have basically is to continue the implementation of our state strategy. We’re in phase three right now of our state strategy. Phase one was the development of the strategy and getting buy-in from all the regions as well as our state agencies in the strategy as it exists and of course we have that signed by the governor, and it was approved by DHS in March, so we feel very strongly that the state strategy is going to be our guidance. We’re going to use that to really develop and to help execute our homeland security mission. Phase two was the training of our goal leaders that essentially said here’s the capabilities-based preparedness planning process, the 8-step process, here’s what you need to do, step 1 through step 8, here’s what you need to do to form your group and get them working, and here’s what we’re looking for expectations form you as a result of this. And so we’ve completed our goal leader training, we’re now in the process of starting goal leader working groups that essentially will be developing initiatives for the target capabilities that we prioritized. We prioritized the top 15 right now, and then we’re going to work phase IV is going to be working on the other 22 target capabilities we’re going to work next year.
So implementing phase three of our state strategy is our priority for this year. For next year it will be implementing phase four. And then we’re going to complete the build-out of our office of homeland security. We still have a couple people left to hire. We have to find a facility, and actually what we’re doing is we’re going to stay here and we’re right now kind of embedded in office space within DEM. Wherever they had a free office we’ve kind of moved in. And so we’re going to build out some space that is located right across the hall from DEM, so we’re going to be in the same office complex as DEM, our intelligence fusion center, which is the Colorado Information Analysis Center, as well as our Rubicon team, which is our critical infrastructure protection folks. So all of us are going to be kind of one-stop shopping here in this complex. So it’s worked out very well, and of course DEM has been just great in terms of supporting us with whatever we need in terms of capabilities to be able to manage the office.