Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dysfunctional Information Operations at Homeland Security Department

Since its creation in March 2003, DHS has created immense immigration database that is now integrated with the FBI’s criminal database, all of which it is now sharing with local law enforcement officials. The resulting information system is the main instrument of the immigrant crackdown that is detaining and deporting record numbers of both illegal immigrants and legal immigrants who have criminal records.

But with respecting to protecting the homeland, DHS has created an information and intelligence-sharing system that simply doesn’t work. Even within the special DHS division to fuse federal, local, and private information fails to share information and intelligence.

It didn’t take the failure of DHS to prevent an attempted act of terrorism on Dec. 25 by a Nigerian man linked to Al Qaeda to conclude that the information clearinghouse system created by DHS systemically flawed. A November report by DHS’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) on the department’s National Operations Center (NOC), the DHS information-sharing center, came to that conclusion just talking to the NOC staff.

The study’s two central conclusions represented a blistering criticism of the blundering department. According to the OIG:

  • “NOC is negatively affected by organizational issues such as not having requisite authority, ambiguities in its mission, and an unclear chain of command.”
  • “The overall focus of the NOC shifts between emergency management, terrorism prevention, and law enforcement.”

Over the past seven years DHS has come under repeated criticism from its own inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, and an array of congressional oversight committees for its system failures.

Most of the criticism of DHS has centered on its particularly apparent constitutional inability to exercise effective oversight and management of its multiple agencies and on its deep-seated reliance on private contractors, even for oversight functions. In addition, the media, human rights organizations, and immigrant support organizations have leveled harsh criticism against DHS for its abuse-ridden immigrant detention system.

The DHS has had a ready excuse for its failures, namely that it is a new department that has had the mammoth task of cobbling together the operations of 22 agencies into one integrated department.

Year after year DHS officials have told congressional oversight committees that its oversight failures and contractor reliance are products of the rush to get a new department up and running. This oft-repeated excuse routinely comes with the oft-repeated promise that it will do better.

But it hasn’t done better, as the OIG report on the National Operations Center makes startling clear.

National Operations Center Isn’t Operational

The National Operations Center (NOC) is the department’s second attempt to create a homeland security information center.

NOC was established in May 2006 as the successor to DHS’ much-criticized Homeland Security Operations Center and in the wake of the DHS’s failed responses to Hurricane Katrina. It is a division of DHS’ Office of Operations Coordination and Planning (OPS), which, according to DHS, “is responsible for monitoring the daily security of the United States.”

NOC’s mission is to “facilitate information sharing and operational coordination” with federal, state, and local agencies with the objective of providing “domestic situation awareness” to senior DHS officials and to the White House.

As part of that mission, the National Operations Center is mandated to provide DHS and White House leadership with “a Common Operating Picture, information fusion, information sharing, communications, and coordination pertaining to domestic-incident management and prevention of terrorism.”

The OIG report on NOC highlights the bureaucratic dysfunction that pervades the unwieldy DHS bureaucracy. By doing so, the study raises nagging questions about the wisdom of having a government department that combines such diverse functions as emergency response, immigration enforcement, transportation security, the Coast Guard, and domestic counterterrorism.

The study also underscores DHS’ structural dependence on private contractors.

Although heavily redacted, the report is studded with alarming observations and conclusions, including the following:

  • “Some contractors may be performing inherently governmental functions,” such as overseeing other contractors.
  • Although combining law enforcement, emergency management, and intelligence expertise, it doesn’t possess “operational capabilities.” One NOC official told the OIG that “the center is operational only in name, and does not have the capabilities or authority to direct DHS component resources or personnel.”
  • Other DHS agencies routinely ignore NOC and are “charting their own course,” according one DOC official.
  • Another NOC official said that government officials rely more heavily on entities external to DHS, such as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI’s National Joint Terrorism Task Force, for information and intelligence.
  • “Some NOC personnel said that after Hurricane Katrina the center has ‘become an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency,’ and they contend that the change has diminished the ability of all NOC personnel to respond to terrorist threats.
  • Despite the renaming and revamping of the Homeland Security Operations Center and the creation of the new intelligence center in 2006, “no formal plans or training programs were in place to facilitate the NOC reorganization.”
  • NOC’s two divisions – intelligence and operations – are badly split, paralyzing the agency. “Another desk officer said the Intelligence and Operations sides play in different worlds, and 90% of what I&A [Intelligence and Analysis] knows, the SWOs [Senior Watch Officers] do not know.”
  • Senior Watch Officers, who are responsible for briefing DHS leadership on potential domestic and international incidents that may affect national security, “are not receiving the necessary information to brief DHS senior leadership.”

DHS has accepted a series of seventeen OIG recommendations to remedy the array of problems examined the report.

But remaining unquestioned is advisability of the very existence of the DHS. The last seven years of DHS failures and its lack of focus raise persistent questions about having one department that under the mission of homeland security includes such a diversity of functions.

Nor does the study question the advisability of involving the new department in local law enforcement through its network of fusion centers.

Given the diverse array of its responsibilities – including border security, disaster response, counterterrorism intelligence, immigration enforcement, infrastructure protection, aviation security, etc. – it is little wonder that its National Operations Center is confused, divided, and dysfunctional.

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