Friday, March 12, 2010

The Homeland Security Department Disaster

(This is the second in a series on the state of the Department of Homeland Security. The first part is at: )

The Department of Homeland Security is a disaster.

Since its early days DHS has been an “area of risk,” according to the Government Accountability Office. Employee morale is abysmal, ranking among the worst of all federal agencies. Within DHS, private contractors outnumber federal employees. Seven years after its creation DHS is still grappling with a debilitating identity crisis.

DHS is a $55 billion department in search of a separate identity and a clear mission. A mash-up of 22 separate agencies, DHS continues to struggle to define itself – and to define exactly what is homeland security.

Since its beginning it has been the object of widespread criticism and frustration. Its signature feature – the color-coded terror advisory alerts – is commonly regarded as useless or even comical. DHS failed spectacularly its first big test in responding to Hurricane Katrina of August 2005, and the launch by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff of its immigrant crackdown that same year has been widely derided as mean-spirited, ideologically driven, and largely disconnected from the post-9/11 national commitment to homeland security.

From the beginning DHS has been dogged by questions about its role with respect to DOD, FBI, and the CIA. Initially the U.S. public -- and even the department’s first secretary Tom Ridge – believed that the new department would consolidate and oversee the intelligence about threats to the U.S. homeland. Upon taking control of the new department, however, Ridge learned that DHS wouldn’t have a central role in homeland security-related intelligence but would be obligated to rely on the CIA, FBI, and DOD for threat assessments and most other intelligence.

The absence of a prime role in intelligence for the new Homeland Security Department highlighted the existential crisis at DHS. What is the vision, the mission, the essential justification for the creation and continued existence of this megabureaucracy of 220,000 employees?

The new department certainly has important governmental functions, such as border control, immigration policy enforcement, emergency management, transportation security, Coast Guard, and Secret Service. But since its creation DHS has been on a search for unifying identity. Apart from describing its parts, DHS hasn’t been able to say simply and clearly what it is as a whole.

One way DHS has faced this challenge is by simply declaring that it is a unified whole. In the introduction to One Team, One Mission, Securing Our Homeland: DHS Strategic Plan 2008-2013, Chertoff stated:

“We are a unified Department with a shared focus: strengthening our Nation – through a partnership with individual citizens, the private sector, state, local, and tribal governments, and our global partners. We must also coordinate across Federal agencies, while shaping homeland security policy and coordinating incident management.”
So what was that one mission for which this one team is responsible for?

The DHS mission, according to its strategic plan, is:
“We will lead the unified national effort to secure America. We will prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the Nation. We will secure our national borders while welcoming lawful immigrants, visitors, and trade.”
The DHS vision statement, animating this mission, is: “A secure America, a confident public, and a strong and resilient society and economy.”

A telling shortcoming  – one that has existed since the creation of DHS – is that DHS doesn’t have a leadership role in counterterrorism. In actual matters of homeland security, DHS is subservient to the same competing constellation of federal agencies – CIA, FBI, DOD, and NSA – that was responsible (along with the Bush White House) for the failures of communication and intelligence coordination that left the country open to the Sept. 11 attacks.

By the end of the Bush administration DHS had yet to establish, let alone demonstrate, that it was a leader in security, that it had a unified team, or that there was some important new role the department was playing moving the country toward its vision of a secure America, a confident society, and a resilient economy.

Its statements of leadership, purpose, and unity couldn’t gloss over what a mess the department was – evident even to the casual observer and documented by an embarrassing stream of critical reports from its own inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, and House oversight committees.

The Obama administration has done its best to shore up the credibility and integrity of DHS. The appointment of Janet Napolitano as the new DHS secretary went a long way to show that DHS would be moving beyond the ideological fervor, mean-spiritedness, and corporate coziness that characterized Chertoff’s tenure. Napolitano has ordered major reviews and overhauls within the vast bureaucracy, and she has proved to be smart, effective, and serious about her job.

With Napolitano at its helm and under a new administration, DHS has become a fixture in U.S. governance, passing from a start-up venture created in throes of the U.S 9/11 response to an increasingly consolidated institution in the DC firmament. Less dogmatic and more honest than her predecessor, Napolitano has made a “unified DHS” a goal rather than merely stating it as an accomplishment.

In implicit recognition of its problems, DHS now notes on its website:
“Six years on since the Department's creation, our goal is simple: one DHS, one enterprise, a shared vision, with integrated results-based operations. Through a consolidated headquarters, we are bringing 35 locations together. We are implementing a series of wide-ranging efficiency initiatives that leverage the economies of scale in our Department in order to recover hundreds of millions of dollars and create a culture of responsibility and fiscal discipline.”
But determination, better management, leadership skills, along with an improved team of top officials, won’t be enough to rescue DHS.

Dressing up immigration enforcement in new and less divisive language and eliminating some of the excesses of the previous administration haven’t altered the severity, tragedy, and divisiveness of the immigrant crackdown. The recent integration of the Homeland Security Council into the National Security Council, while appropriately recognizing that homeland security and national security overlap, also raises new questions about the defining duties of DHS.

It’s an immense new federal bureaucracy that has yet to explain what it is doing that its member agencies weren’t doing – or couldn’t have done -- before its creation. What’s the added value, if any, of our Department of Homeland Security?

Next: The Much-Vaunted Resiliency of the Homeland Security Enterprise

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