Former DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin released his new book, “Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack” a couple of weeks ago. I’ve finished reading the book, and my overall reaction is that it’s a very flawed treatise on the state of homeland security today. There is no doubt that Ervin is sincere in his desire to improve homeland security, and there are a number of solid passages in the book; for example, the chapter on DHS’s abdication of its intelligence responsibilities to the FBI and CIA is an interesting read, and his claim that we’re making a false distinction between homeland security and national defense is spot-on. But overall, it’s a tedious read, and one that has numerous logical flaws and inconsistencies, including:
1. Insufficient appreciation for risk assessment and resource prioritization: Ervin notes that he supports Sec. Chertoff’s risk-based approach to homeland security, then spends a large portion of the book disproving this notion. His chapter on “soft target” security (recounted in this WaPo oped) offers a laundry list of threats – food supply, schools, cybersecurity, shopping malls – and berates DHS for not doing enough on these threats. But what exactly should DHS be doing for each of these threats? And would efforts to address them be a better use of resources than tackling high-value threats? Probably not. Ervin fails to acknowledge the tradeoffs implicit in his discussion of the “need to do more” in a particular area. And he seems to not understand the way in which multiple layers of security deflect the need for absolute 100% perfect security in any one program or activity.
2. Failure to understand the need to balance interests: Ervin questions the value of the Visa Waiver Program in his chapter on border security, and later berates DHS for kow-towing to private sector interests on port and cargo security. But why are these not legitimate interests? And isn’t it completely appropriate to look at tradeoffs and consequences when making homeland security decisions, whether they be in terms of economic values or societal values such as privacy? If we don’t take this approach, then we risk undermining the foundations of our strength as a nation.
3. Inconsistent grounds for criticism: Ervin accuses TSA of moving too slowly to adopt new screening technology, even though the new technology was unproven, and then in the next chapter contradicts himself by accusing CBP of moving too fast to adopt unproven technology. He recounts the examples of TSA’s wasteful spending during its startup period, which was largely a function of compressed Congressional deadlines; but then he berates other parts of DHS for moving slowly on new efforts. Any time that you’re trying to adopt new technologies, there are going to be tradeoffs between the speed of the effort, the performance of the new technology, and the cost of the effort – you can optimize two out of three of these variables, but never all three. Ervin fails to acknowledge this important dynamic of the innovation cycle.
4. The omission of critical examples: the chapter on “Port Security and Nuclear Attack” deals extensively with DHS’s efforts on radiation detection. Ervin sharply criticizes CBP’s current investment strategy. But he fails to mention, even once, the linchpin of the Department’s radiation detection strategy since January 2005: the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), which is making great strides to develop new detection equipment; for example, the development of the Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System. This failure to mention the DNDO discredits his whole line of argument in this chapter.
5. Dated examples: Nearly every example in the chapter on “wasteful spending and sloppy accounting” predates the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. But a reader who is unfamiliar with DHS wouldn’t know that, and Ervin leaves the impression that the realities of TSA contracting in 2002 are still the norm today. That’s simply not true.
6. Blaming DHS but letting the White House off the hook: Ervin directs most of his venom at Sec. Ridge and the original leadership team at DHS, seeing them as ineffective and non-responsive to his IG reports. Certainly there are examples in the book where the senior leadership team at DHS could have been more attentive to the work of the IG. But he makes no effort to stand in Ridge’s shoes, or acknowledge the political and budgetary constraints in which Ridge was operating. It’s not Ridge who is ultimately responsible for the fact that DHS lost turf battles to the FBI and the CIA, or had his chemical security plans undercut (see this Post story last December); it’s the White House. It’s not Ridge who was ultimately responsible for the fact that the homeland security budget basically flat-lined after 2003, delaying investments in critical areas; it’s the White House, OMB, and Congress. Ervin was a friend of President Bush before coming to Washington, and he still seems to have a lingering fealty to the President, which may be the reason why he consistently chooses a “blame the victim” narrative in the book.
7. Passages that make no sense: On page 22, Ervin notes that part of the answer for the nation’s failure to move more swiftly on homeland security “lies in the fact that the executive branch of our government is run by largely unaccountable short-term political appointees and career bureaucrats.” Um, what other categories are there?? And his citation on Page 15 of Edward Abbey, the spiritual godfather of ecosabotage, is an eyebrow-raiser…
Ervin reminds me a bit of Girolamo Savonarola, the 16th-century friar who demanded perfection of the Florentine masses and was responsible for the original “bonfire of the vanities,” until the masses ultimately grew tired of his absolutist hectoring. Ervin takes a similar attitude to the question of homeland security, and his demands for perfection lead him to unfairly question the character of people like Tom Ridge, who I think did a decent job in a very tough assignment.
Are there faults with our nation’s homeland security? Absolutely (and I never shy away from mentioning them on this site). But this book doesn’t provide a convincing roadmap for how to address them. Instead of pointing the way toward an improved DHS with a nuanced, strategic analysis, Ervin settles for score-settling and overly-simplistic commentary, which is disappointing.
Update (5/16): For a different perspective, here’s Lee Hamilton’s review of the book in the Washington Post.