$636 Billion Later
Over the past decade, so much has changed in what DHS calls the homeland security “enterprise” that it’s difficult to encapsulate. DHS is the third-largest federal agency, behind the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and, after spending $636 billion federal dollars since its inception, has established many capabilities and working relationships that contribute to carrying out its mandate.
DHS has stood up entirely new government entities, such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a workforce of 58,000 responsible for protecting U.S. aviation, highways, railroads, buses, and mass transit systems.
DHS has stood up entirely new government entities, such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a workforce of 58,000 responsible for protecting U.S. aviation, highways, railroads, buses, and mass transit systems. The government has overhauled the entire national intelligence apparatus under a single Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and facilitated information flow among international, federal, state, local, and private-sector partners. Charged with protecting the nation’s civilian infrastructure – 85 percent of which is privately owned and operated – the department has launched programs to push information and expert advice about threats and best practices; research and development; training and education; security audits; vulnerability assessments; and more. It has guarded the integrity of the U.S. border with a combination of prevention – strengthening security, reducing fraud, and improving the reliability of personal identification documents – and enforcement, with a frontline force of 17,700 Border Patrol agents. It has implemented several strategies to improve the ability of federal, state, and local entities to respond to and recover from disasters.
The list of achievements is impressive, and is well catalogued in the department’s 67-page progress report. In less than a decade, the federal government’s efforts at strengthening the homeland security enterprise have achieved a remarkable record of mobilizing resources, building and strengthening relationships, and innovating new approaches and capabilities. In bringing dramatic changes to the national security apparatus, the Department of Homeland Security and its various bureaus have been among the most heavily scrutinized – and criticized – of government agencies.
Is criticism deserved? Many homeland security experts agree on two things: It is. And it isn’t.
Rick Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes the Department of Homeland Security deserves much credit: “DHS has done a good job of evolving,” he said, “despite the obstacles they’ve faced.”
Henry Willis, associate director of the RAND Corporation’s Homeland Security and Defense Center, agreed that the government is more capable than it used to be – but he has reservations. “Have we put capabilities in place that we didn’t have before? Across any of those operational areas, you can spell out a number of changes that have been made … I think you can give the federal and state governments a lot of credit for becoming more prepared, for getting better at sharing information and identifying where they’re not sharing information. But quickly you come to two other questions. One is: Are we safer? And two is: Has it been worth it?”
But quickly you come to two other questions. One is: Are we safer? And two is: Has it been worth it?”
Though it’s probably safe to claim that the nation is indeed safer, those two questions are still debatable – and the fact that they’re debatable points to nagging and persistent problems the government has encountered in establishing and improving homeland security.
One of the most common charges made against the Department of Homeland Security is that it has lacked a big-picture focus, a clear view of its own missions and priorities; critics claim the department is still reacting to events, rather than shaping them. This seems inevitable, said Nelson, given that the department was literally born playing defense: “At the end of the Cold War when the threat changed and we had an opportunity to re-evaluate our government’s infrastructure – like we did after World War II – we failed to do that,” said Nelson. “So when 9/11 hit, we ended up doing a reorganization that should have taken place 10 years earlier. When we created DHS and we created ODNI [the Officer of the Director of National Intelligence], it wasn’t a perfect organization, because we did it in a time of crisis instead of doing it at a time of deliberation.”
Crisis mode has, in a sense, extended 10 years into the future, occasionally reinvigorated by events such as Hurricane Katrina or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Many of DHS’s policies and security measures are still reactive rather than proactive. For example, idiosyncratic airport screening measures have been adopted in the wake of specific plots. We take off our shoes in security lines because of the 2001 “shoe bomber” (although Napolitano said at a Politico Playbook breakfast in September 2011 that DHS is working to allow people to keep their shoes on); we’re not allowed liquids in carry-on luggage in quantities larger than 4 ounces because of the 2006 transAtlantic plot; we’re barred from carrying certain types and sizes of printer cartridges in our luggage after a cargo plane bomb plot in October 2010.
DHS’ struggle to get ahead of events, rather than respond to them as they occur, continues to an extent, hampered by two additional and related problems: First, it is often criticized for a lack of suitable “metrics,” or performance measurements, a key decision-making aid. DHS does, of course, use performance measurements – for example, the measurement of illegal immigration attempts (340,252 Border Patrol apprehensions in FY 2011, down 53 percent since FY 2008) or drug seizures at the border – but sometimes its methods are questioned. When the department reported that illegal immigration attempts had declined over the past two years, the basis of this measurement – the number of its own apprehensions of illegal immigrants at the border – was questioned: Could other variables be involved?
Nelson points to this lack of definition as the result of a second over-arching problem: The department’s defensive posture has plagued it with a fuzzy set of missions, organization, and planning processes. “We say we’re making progress on border security – and we are – but this is another area where DHS is hindered. We don’t know what our immigration policy is,” Nelson said. “And until we know our comprehensive immigration policy, how do we know how to secure the border? What does a secure border look like? Until we answer that question, DHS is operating at a disadvantage.”
Planning, policy development, and organization have been the primary focus for the department over the past decade – the government submitted its first-ever “Quadrennial Homeland Security Review” to Congress on Feb. 1, 2010 – but often, the department has been hobbled by its relationship with Congress and the White House, from which DHS takes direction. According to Willis, DHS isn’t always given the tools it needs to succeed. The Quadrennial Review, for example, was widely criticized – by the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, among others – as too vague. “But that’s not entirely the Department of Homeland Security’s fault,” said Willis. “They’re not given the resources to do what would be necessary if you wanted a headquarters-level strategic analysis to support your decision-making. They have to live with the budget they’re given.”
Compared to other federal agency budgets, DHS’ (more than $50 billion in 2011) is large, but in such lean budget times, congressional appropriators tend to rob administrative accounts to pay for operational costs. During the debate for the FY 2012 budget, House appropriators proposed a straight transfer of money from the department’s Office of Policy into police and firefighter grant programs.
Congressional appropriators face a difficult task, and are forced to weigh many issues in their decision-making. But to publicly criticize a department’s planning outcomes, and then to cut the funding to its Office of Policy, is to invite criticism of Congress’s own performance – namely, that it hamstrings the department with unreasonable and contradictory demands.
When it required Customs and Border Protection, as part of a 2007 law, to implement inspection of 100 percent of all inbound cargo containers, Congress committed what both Nelson and Willis regard as a legislative non sequitur that demonstrated little or no understanding of the global supply chain. Together, the nation’s two largest ports for containerized cargo, Los Angeles and Long Beach, handle nearly a million containers in a month, each of which may have passed through a dozen foreign ports on its way to the United States. Experts in logistics and the global supply chain would argue – and have argued – that an agency inspecting every single inbound cargo container has failed to do its job further up the supply chain, by ensuring sound policies, procedures, and personnel for inspection and access control. The U.S Coast Guard, through the International Port Security Program, has been encouraging these best practices with American trade partners around the globe since 2004. It’s not a perfect program, and, like just about any other security program, it’s arguably underfunded – but the fact remains that nobody has yet been hurt by one of those millions of cargo containers.