Black Americans Securing the Homeland

It isn’t about Condi and Colin anymore.

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At a meeting in the White House to review Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253, the Situation Room was packed with major security brass: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder—as well as CIA and FBI heads Leon Panetta and Robert Mueller, respectively. President Barack Obama, upset about the embarrassing Christmas Day security breach, reportedly told his top security advisers that the United States “dodged a bullet, but just barely.”

With the notable exception of Holder and Obama, the roundtable was mostly white. This has been the case for national security leadership stretching back to, well, forever. But George W. Bush’s first term as president—featuring National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell—changed the game. As the fallout from the Detroit bombing attempt shows, keeping America’s homeland secure implicates an enormous web of mutual responsibility—from the secret service agents outside the Oval Office to the foreign intelligence officers that have been dispatched to Nigeria. And like many aspects of government under Obama, diversity in the ranks of America’s security apparatus is increasing.

Indeed, much controversy surrounding the Christmas Day bombing has focused on Errol Southers, an African-American former FBI special agent and director of Homeland Security for California—whose nomination to lead the TSA has been blocked by Republicans. (Senate Majority leader Harry Reid has said he will force a vote to instate him in the next week.) Southers, who is the latest in a line of blacks implicated in the American national security apparatus, takes a macroscopic approach to counterterrorism endorsed most recently by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Terrorism engages every discipline: sociology, education, physics, engineering,” Southers said in a recent interview. “It doesn’t call for a military solution. It’s an interdisciplinary solution. As globalization increases, terrorism will not be confined to any one region or country.”

His perspective and experience may be essential to averting future terrorist attacks. Here are some other African Americans who made their mark on the front lines of what the Obama administration no longer calls a “war on terror.” Between underpants bombers, state dinner party crashers (now three of them) and foreign wars (now two of them) their work is all the more important.