Interview with Thomas L. Preston, director of the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security (KOHS) and a senior advisor to Governor Steve Beshear.
Thomas L. Preston is director of the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security (KOHS) and a senior advisor to Governor Steve Beshear. A veteran of more than 50 years in both the public and private sectors, he served as an officer in the U.S. Army and owned two companies before joining state government in December 2007. In the Army, Preston interdicted Communist Chinese espionage and sabotage activities against the United States and Taiwan and fought Soviet-backed attempts to assassinate U.S. military personnel in Turkey and Eastern Europe. Later, he founded two consultancies: The Preston Group, which focused on communications and crisis management; and Preston Global, which provided leadership in matters of international terrorism and workplace violence.
While in the private sector, Preston helped locate a little-known transnational terrorist cell in Brooklyn, New York, following a death threat against a client. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, Preston received the school’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award for work in hostile crisis prevention and response and reputation management. He has been a visiting lecturer and adjunct professor at three universities.
Preston is also the first Kentuckian inducted into the Public Relations Society of America’s College of Fellows. A past member of the Kentucky Commission on Emergency Management and the State Council on Public Higher Education, he has been active in both ASIS International and the International Association of Counterterrorism and Security Professionals.
Q. What are the responsibilities of your office?
A. Our office is focused primarily on the prevention and preparedness end of the homeland security spectrum. We help coordinate critical infrastructure protection efforts within the state, including vulnerability assessments.
We are the designated state administrative agency for federal Homeland Security Grant Program funds. We administer federal grant dollars to a myriad of sources, provide first-responder training, and are trying to better define citizen outreach objectives. We also oversee statewide compliance with the National Incident Management System.
Toward the goal of making our state a “hard” target, we must excel in intelligence gathering and analysis. We are one of the partners in the all-crimes Kentucky Intelligence Fusion Center, which is a key prevention and response tool. In summary, KOHS serves the safety and security interests of both the private and public sectors.
Q. What are the top assets and threats, natural or man-made, in your state? Which ones make your state unique?
A. It is no secret that Kentucky has noteworthy military installations and along with that, a large defense industrial base. Each spring, we host the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, plus other national and international sporting events. Our economy relies heavily on tourism, and we are a crossroads for both interstate highway travel and railroads. Only one other state has more miles of navigable waterways than Kentucky.
Although emergency management is not part of KOHS’s mission, we remain attentive to natural disasters, particularly tornadoes, earthquakes, and ice storms. Based on that environment, our fusion center features a video and computer monitoring system for weather and highway infrastructure.
Q. How has your background helped you on the job?
A. As someone approaching his 52nd year working in communications, crisis management, and counterterrorism, I can tell you that experience is invaluable. In particular, my background fosters a better understanding of those dedicated to America’s destruction. Too many people ignore the fact that our terrorist adversaries vary widely. Their motivations, assets, training standards, philosophies, psychology, funding capabilities, propaganda methods, liabilities, and other characteristics are not all the same.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you face?
A. There are a number of them: public apathy about terrorism, loss of reasonable funding despite growing demands for our services, personnel attrition, and obstacles to information sharing among local, state, and national entities.
Q. What has surprised you most on the job?
A. There have been few surprises. But I have been deeply impressed by the degree of dedication among homeland security employees with whom I have interacted, as well as by the unceasing determination of first responders to prevent, react to, and assist with recovery when anything detrimental occurs. They are very special men and women.
Q. How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What would you change?
A. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, her immediate staff, and various subsets of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been incredibly responsive, willing to listen, and supportive of our efforts. Conversely, DHS remains a product of congressional haste—an awkward conglomeration of federal agencies. Because of this, the agency’s composition is long overdue for review. I trust at this early stage that new management will improve business practices, demand greater efficiency, and more quickly adapt to changing circumstances.
Q. How big a challenge is fiscal sustainability going forward given the economic environment? How is your agency adjusting?
A. This relates directly to the issues of restructuring, greater efficiencies, and improved practices at DHS. There has been waste of taxpayer dollars since day one—unfortunately, a common product of bureaucracy. It doesn’t have to remain so in the future. Given our horrible economic climate, governments at all levels must do a better job, often with fewer resources. We’re doing so in Kentucky, because Governor Steve Beshear has led in austere times by example. But today we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. There must be balance between congressional or state legislative mandates for offices such as ours and the resources allotted us.
Q. How does your office use exercises to bolster preparedness?
A. An old axiom says that “an exercise isn’t over until you’ve learned from it.” Our instructors are true professionals who abide by that axiom and instill the thought into our trainees. If a drill doesn’t uncover operational flaws or unexpected obstacles, then it was a waste of time and resources. So when we drill on a specific type of incident, we always throw in an additional, unforeseen challenge, whether it’s a secondary emergency or failure of a major response resource. Candid appraisals are absolute requirements, although I find this lacking in some private-sector evaluations.
Q. What are your agency’s goals for the coming year?
A. An existing initiative we’re trying to promote and expand is “Eyes and Ears On Kentucky,” which is the state’s suspicious activity report (SAR) program. Through a toll-free, anonymous tip line, state residents can submit SARs to the state’s fusion center. It’s designed to stimulate citizen involvement as well as increase action toward sensible, conscientious reporting of suspicious activities.
Another goal is advancement of a statewide E-Warrants initiative. This is a Web database, automating arrest warrant creation and making them instantly available across the state, even from police vehicles. A key component is converting more than 300,000 existing paper warrants across the state into the database. The statewide service rate of new and older warrants is expected to increase dramatically. We have seen a jump from below 10 percent in arrest paper warrant service rates to an average of almost 60 percent in counties using the electronic system.
A third emphasis is on constitutional rights, such as privacy. We are serious about balancing the need for detection of suspicious activity and the rights of all citizens. Without this balance, improper conduct can violate rights and generate unnecessary, self-made crises. We won’t diminish vigilance and awareness one iota, but we will do our job within legal boundaries and reasonableness.