Punching above Their Weight: The Homeland Security Contributions of the U.S. Pacific Territories

Colby Stanton


It seems today that little attention is paid to the United States’ Pacific territories by those outside the Pacific. Indeed, while the U.S. Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico has received considerable media attention since Hurricane Maria struck, it seems that the United States’ Pacific territories—this thesis focuses on Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (or CNMI), and American Samoa, the three U.S. Pacific territories with indigenous populations and governance—are sometimes forgotten. This has been seen recently in the media discussions of North Korea’s initial threats to attack Guam with nuclear weapons and previously in incredulous discussions regarding American Samoa’s receipt of federal homeland security grant funding. The United States sought its new territories in the late 19th/early 20th century (in the case of Guam and American Samoa) and at the end of World War II (CNMI) in a clear view that the territories would contribute to the United States’ security, and specifically military, interests. Many Americans—including many policy makers—now seem to be unfamiliar with the U.S. Pacific territories and their strategic value. While some would argue that based solely on their status as Americans, the residents of these territories deserve the attention and support of U.S. policy makers, this thesis is intended for those with a more consequentialist (utilitarian) view of homeland security practice. This is intended to answer the question, What is the value of the United States’ Pacific territories to the nation’s homeland security and what are the strategic implications of that value?
While definitions of the term “homeland security” vary widely, a definition that includes national security underpins the present research. The research was conducted through an analysis of secondary sources, and all sources used in the development of this policy research are Unclassified and open source. This thesis examines the current significance of the U.S. Pacific territories beyond the specific day-to-day challenges encountered by homeland security practitioners, hopefully shedding light on a broader strategic impact that may justify additional investment in a way that simple population numbers may not immediately support.
As the initial intent in gaining the U.S. Pacific territories was for military purposes, their current role in military strategy was examined first. In the Western Pacific, in particular, the U.S. Pacific territories serve as critical infrastructure and logistical bases in a strategically and tactically important area of the world. Both Guam and CNMI are involved in the Guam build-up, which is intended to move military resources from Japan. In addition, they provide training grounds for U.S. personnel and constitute barriers to incursion by other Indo-Pacific powers. The importance of American Samoa to the current U.S. military strategy appears much less clear than that of Guam and CNMI; based on the analysis in this thesis, however, it can be argued, however, that this is not because of a lack of importance, but rather because of faulty strategic military planning and an overreliance on Australia and New Zealand to support American positions south of the equator.
National strategies are not executed solely or even predominantly through military actions, however. International Studies expert Joseph S. Nye, Jr., posited that a nation whose culture and ideology are attractive to other nations, especially if it can exert pressure to develop international expectations that are consistent with its own, may be able to achieve its aims with less exertion of military power. Consistent with the belief that military strength is not the sole source of a nation’s international power, the U.S. has adopted a doctrine that identifies four categories of national power: diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (frequently referred to using the shorthand DIME). This approach has been summarized as requiring these tools to be used in concert by the U.S. Government as a whole to effectively work to achieve the nation’s strategic objectives. In other words, a whole of government approach, focusing on the U.S.’ diplomatic ties (e.g., alliances, policies, and partnerships), information efforts (e.g., developing and sharing an intentional message with the public, gathering information and intelligence about other actors), and economic impacts (e.g., trade assistance, trade policies) should work together to achieve the nation’s overarching national security strategies.
While the importance of coordination between the Department of Defense and the State Department has been noted in numerous contexts, the need for coordination of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policies with the nation’s overarching national security goals has been less examined. The activities of DHS agencies in the U.S. Pacific territories in the areas of DIME are summarized in Table ES-1, with specific agencies acting in each area identified in Table ES-2. Note that while DHS entities do not implement military activities, their mission areas provide coordination and support to military bases and efforts in the identified areas.

Table ES 1. Implications of Homeland Security Policy for National Security Strategy in the Pacific Island Regions

DHS Agency Roles Impacting DIME Areas





DHS Agency Roles Impacting DIME Areas DHS entities engage with Freely Associated States within their mission areas (e.g., FEMA for disaster response and recovery) Public affairs & communications efforts by all DHS entities Infrastructure protection Immigration policy
USCG engagement in fisheries protection Cyber and infrastructure protection of vulnerabilities Infrastructure protection and development (e.g., through grants)
Training for Indo-Pacific Regional partners in various mission areas (e.g., maritime safety and security, emergency management) Immigration enforcement (air and sea) Customs and border protection
USCG homeland defense mission USCG engagement in fisheries protection, maritime safety in U.S. Pacific territories and Freely Associated State
Disaster response and recovery
Transportation security


Table ES 2. DHS Agencies with Responsibilities That Address National Security Strategy in the Pacific Islands Region

DHS Agency with Roles Impacting DIME Areas







While the economies of all the U.S. Pacific territories but American Samoa are currently growing, they remain weak when compared to the U.S. mainland. The economic development of these small island territories is challenging, due to their somewhat limited resources. The current lack of a “whole of government” approach to the U.S. Pacific territories results in confusion and a lack of coherency in U.S. national strategy, which can impede both the achievement of U.S. goals and the development of economic strength in the territories. The Governors of the U.S. Pacific territories have, at times, pointed to federal law as impeding their economic development, including such examples as the Jones Act (restricting foreign-built ships from landing in U.S. harbors), cabotage laws (restricting international flights from landing in U.S. destinations in succession), and implementation of the U.S. minimum wage. The relevance of this issue for homeland security practitioners is two-fold: first, as homeland security practitioners interpret and implement policy in the Pacific, fragmented approaches by U.S. homeland security practitioners, among others, may have failed to consider how their policies impact the economic and disaster resilience of these jurisdictions. Second, the lack of economic development in the U.S. Pacific territories is a homeland security issue that presents challenges for those working to increase resilience and respond to disasters in this region.
The current method for allocating homeland security funding to the territories seems to have been set somewhat arbitrarily. After 9/11, the homeland security grant program established to allow states and territories to take actions needed to increase the nation’s homeland security was mocked for allocating funding to American Samoa, in particular, noting funding allocated to this small territory was massive when viewed on a per capita basis. Significant debate followed over whether funding should be based on risk or population, in part because there is no record of the reasoning behind Congress’ decision on the matter. While the current base funding levels may be appropriate, it is hard to know, given the apparently minimal consideration that was given to the level of allocation in Congressional discussions. Similarly, the impacts of isolation and struggling economies do not appear to be considered in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) allocation of pre-disaster mitigation (PDM) funding, nor are they included in FEMA’s enabling regulations to implement the Stafford Act, which proscribe the process for requesting a Presidential Disaster Declaration and associated funding.
The U.S. Government’s approach to the Pacific territories has changed remarkably little since the 1950s. As described by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), “The Secretary of the Interior has administrative responsibility for coordinating federal policy for the insular areas [which includes the U.S. Pacific territories].” The most significant change since the 1950s was the 2003 creation of the Interagency Group on Insular Areas (IGIA) to improve the internal management processes of the federal government with respect to the territories. However, the GAO has reported that the IGIA was ineffective at addressing the impacts of the military build-up in Guam. There has also been confusion within the U.S. Pacific territories over the Department of the Interior’s (DOI’s) role and its ability to manage the actions of other federal agencies.
Despite the GAO’s finding regarding the current limitations of the federal government’s approach to the territories, there seems to be little discussion of whether the current structure is best suited to address the nation’s national security interests in the territories, including homeland security. This despite the fact that the United States government already has in place a two-pronged structure for dealing with the U.S.’ territories: while the U.S. Pacific territories and the U.S. Virgin Islands are administered by the Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) within the Department of the Interior, the President’s Deputy Assistant for Intergovernmental Affairs coordinates responsibility for U.S. Government Puerto Rico policy, with a President’s Task Force established to coordinate federal support. Little analysis seems to have been performed on whether the approach to governance of Puerto Rico might be more or less effective than the current DOI OIA role for the other territories. Similarly, there seems to be little discussion regarding whether the IGIA should play a more substantive role in coordinating federal strategy in the U.S. Pacific territories.
While homeland security has been viewed by some as different from national security, it is clear from a review of the literature and from an assessment of the GAO’s exhortation of the dangers of fragmented federal policy that the nation’s interests would be best served by a coherent approach to national and homeland security interests. GAO has specifically noted homeland security as a crosscutting issue requiring “national focus,” noting that interagency coordination can be hampered by conflicting goals, procedures, and responsibilities, impeding the ability to achieve U.S. national interests. The need to avoid fragmentation of federal interests is especially true in the small U.S. Pacific territories, where interrelationships are hard to avoid among the impacts of policy decisions.
Table ES-3 provides recommendations for action. The steps recommended herein are intended to be effective enough to make an impact, while small enough to overcome inherent resistance to change.

Table ES 3. Recommendations

1 Reevaluate laws pertaining to the U.S. Pacific territories to update and, where possible, improve clarity and consistency.

The current hodgepodge of federal laws is confusing and arguing deleterious to homeland security.

Action: Congress

2 Reevaluate coordination and administration for the U.S. territories.

The reason for the current two-pronged approach to Puerto Rico vs. the rest of the territories is not clear, and the administration of DOI may not maximize effectiveness of the territories in furthering national interests.

Action: White House, supported by Executive Branch departments and agencies with equities in the Pacific Islands Region

3 Strengthen interagency coordination of policy towards the U.S. Pacific territories.

The current coordination mechanism has been found lacking in its ability to further national goals in the territories.

Action: Lead for administration of U.S. policy towards the U.S. Pacific territories (currently, DOI OIA)

4 Reevaluate the level and allocation process for federal funding in the U.S. Pacific territories.

This would include the base level of homeland security grant funding, the process for risk-based allocation of homeland security grant funding, and the criteria for declaring a Presidential disaster in the U.S. Pacific territories.

Action: Congress and DHS


The steps envisioned in this thesis would require action by multiple parties, including Congress, the White House, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Homeland Security. While the federal government is a large ship, and turning it is consequently difficult, it can be done when the risks and rewards of the required change are understood.

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