Occasionally we will look back at some of the previous posts on this blog.
Four years ago, HLSWatch’s Beckner presented what he called a “rather dour opinion piece … on homeland security” from the Wall Street Journal. The Journal piece is republished below. I have highlighted in the article some of the questions and ideas that continue to have relevance:
- Are we more secure now than we were before DHS started? Was massively restructuring government an over-reaction to a threat few people understood? How would we know?
- When did collective bargaining become a threat to national security?
- Will Congress ever streamline its oversight of DHS? Why aren’t the number of committees DHS has to report to a national security threat?
- Does the FBI have an effective enterprise-wide computer system?
- Is our adversary “nimble?” Is our anti-terror strategy more than an expensive Maginot Line? How would we know?
- Do we have the institutional and organizational arrangements we need to “effectively prevent domestic terrorist” attacks?
- Is it time to start doubting “the seriousness with which the American people take the terrorist threat?”
- Why do we still use the metaphor of “a game” when talking about seemingly endless wars that have killed more than 8,000 and injured more that 30,000 Americans? Let alone the dead and injured in other nations.
The Maginot Department: Homeland security is about more than playing defense.
When the Department of Homeland Security was created in November 2002, largely at the instigation of Congressional Democrats, it was touted as the biggest restructuring of the federal government in more than 50 years. The new department’s “overriding and urgent mission,” said President Bush, was “securing the American homeland and protecting the American people.” Three years later, the bureaucratic deck chairs have been moved. But are we more secure as a result of it?
One way to answer the question is to think about “homeland security” as something more than a government agency. Creating the 184,000-man, $40 billion DHS was supposed to be a way of integrating 22 semi-autonomous agencies, dealing with everything from border security to emergency management, into a single unit in which redundancies would be eliminated, gaps filled and synergies achieved. But DHS was also intended to serve as an emblem of American resolve; to demonstrate, both to our enemies and ourselves, that we are serious about defending ourselves. Here, then, is some evidence of our collective seriousness.
• In August, federal Judge Rosemary Collyer blocked an Administration effort to create more flexible pay and personnel rules for DHS, on ground that it violated the collective-bargaining rights of government employees. So much for synergies.
• DHS remains subject to the oversight of too many Congressional committees, despite some recent consolidation. The Coast Guard, for example, which operates under the DHS umbrella, remains subject to the House and Senate Transportation committees, while the Transportation Security Administration, which comes under the Homeland Security Committee in the House, is overseen by the Transportation Committee in the Senate.
• The FBI (which is a part of the Justice Department) remains unable to upgrade its computer systems after having burned through four chief information officers and $170 million in four years. As a result, the agency continues to rely on legacy computer systems and hundreds of different kinds of paper forms. The Bureau is now at work on another system, which may or may not be ready by 2009.
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.
Such examples, of course, are merely anecdotal, and it would be unfair to tar the work of the DHS or FBI based on these shortcomings. Nor is it right to suggest that things aren’t capable of improvement; DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff may well prove the man for the job. 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. This is especially the case as Congress becomes increasingly unserious about the domestic threat. It says something about the current state of play that Mr. Bush must now profess gratitude to Congress for graciously agreeing to a one-month extension of the USA Patriot Act, which in 2001 passed the Senate 98-1. Even more unserious has been the political posturing and mock horror that followed this month’s revelations of the National Security Agency’s warrantless phone intercepts. It’s refreshing to know that 64% of Americans, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, approve of the eavesdropping, not that we ever had doubts about the seriousness with which the American people take the terrorist threat. It’s the seriousness of American elites that concerns us.
Not the least of the ironies in the current debate on homeland security is that many of the same people who oppose the war in Iraq also oppose renewal of the Patriot Act and other domestic counterterrorist tools. That is, they are as opposed to going on offense in the war on terror as they are against playing defense. But the war on terror is not a game the U.S. can opt out of. There is a great deal that can be done to improve homeland security–and to improve the department that bears that name. But it won’t count for much if we aren’t clear about the choices we face.