Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 31, 2005

Is homeland security just a new Maginot Line?

Filed under: Organizational Issues — by Christian Beckner on December 31, 2005

The Wall Street Journal has a rather dour opinion piece today on homeland security, one that questions whether it’s even worth the government’s effort to try to secure the homeland. The piece cites several recent setbacks in the nation’s homeland security efforts (DHS personnel reform, congressional oversight, and FBI’s Trilogy project) as examples of government failing to exhibit the “can-do” spirit needed for success.

The article then argues:

But the points aptly illustrate the underlying problem with our collective homeland security apparatus, which is that no government bureaucracy is ever going to be the kind of well-oiled machine that can reliably and effectively prevent domestic terrorist threats. And this is to say nothing of natural disasters.

Instead, what we have is a kind of antiterror version of France’s pre-World War II Maginot Line; an expensive, highly visible static defense against a nimble adversary. Congress loves it because it offers the chance to throw money at domestic constituencies, and liberals love it because it allows them to sound hawkish on terror without having to fire a shot. The rest of us, however, need to be realistic about its abilities.

I’m of a mixed opinion on these arguments. I agree absolutely that the US homeland security system needs to become more nimble, adaptive, efficient and mission-focused. But unlike the writer, I’m not yet ready to give up on the men and women working for the government on homeland security around the country today. Why can’t DHS become a “well-oiled machine?” There are plenty of examples of effective government bureaucracies – including the FEMA of the 1990s, and today’s Coast Guard – that show that this is possible. And it shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out how to do this. For starters: (1) cut down on red tape, (2) remove roadblocks to hiring good people, (3) empower people on the frontline to make decisions, (4) give them the tools and intelligence they need, (5) create organizational transparency, and (6) show zero tolerance for internal turf wars.

I also think that “Maginot Line” is an unfair epithet for homeland security. To be certain, there are elements of the homeland security system, such as checkpoints at borders or airports, that have a Maginot Line-like character to them. But that’s not the whole system. Homeland security is more aptly described today as “defense-in-depth,” with interconnecting layers of security – intelligence, detection tools, boots on the ground, credential checks, physical barriers, public awareness, etc. – each contributing to a create a spider’s web of defenses that harden targets and deny terrorists entry and access to materials. There’s still a long way to go to get the system where it needs to be, but it’s hardly fair to compare it to the Maginot Line.

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