A few months before 9/11, Congress issued a national security report acknowledging that U.S. defense policy had not evolved to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. The report recommended a "national homeland security agency" with a single leader to oversee homeland security-style initiatives across the full range of the federal government. Although the report warned that a terrorist attack could take place on American soil, it collected dust.
Then the attack came, and lawmakers of both political parties and the American public wanted swift, decisive action. President George W. Bush's top officials and advisers saw in 9/11 their main chance to knock off Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and establish a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East. Others, who generally called themselves champions of small government, saw an opportunity to expand big government at home by increasing security spending.
Their decision to combine domestic security under one agency turned out to be like sending the Titanic into the nearest field of icebergs.
President Bush first created an Office of Homeland Security in the White House and then, with the Homeland Security Act of 2002, laid plans for a new executive department. The DHS was funded with billions of dollars and staffed with 180,000 federal employees when it opened for business on March 1, 2003. It qualified as the largest reorganization of the federal government since 1947 when, fittingly, the Department of Defense was established.
Announcing plans for this new branch of government, President Bush made a little-known declaration of "mission accomplished" that long preceded that infamous banner strung up on an aircraft carrier to celebrate his "victory" in Iraq. In November 2002, he said, "The continuing threat of terrorism, the threat of mass murder on our own soil, will be met with a unified, effective response."
Mission unaccomplished (big time).
A decade later, a close look at the hodge-podge of homeland security programs that now spans the U.S. government reveals that there's nothing "unified" about it. Not all homeland security programs are managed through the Department of Homeland Security, nor are all programs at the Department of Homeland Security related to securing the homeland.
Federal officials created the DHS by pulling together 22 existing government departments, including stand-alone agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known by its acronym FEMA, and the Coast Guard, which came with programs both related and unrelated to counterterrorism. They also brought into the DHS a host of programs that had previously existed as parts of other agencies like the Nuclear Incident Response Team from the Department of Energy and the Transportation Security Administration at the Department of Transportation. To knit these disparate parts together, officials built a mammoth bureaucracy over an already existing set of bureaucracies. At the same time, they left a host of counterterrorism programs scattered across the rest of the federal government, which means, a decade later, many activities at the DHS are duplicated by similar programs elsewhere.
A trail of breadcrumbs in federal budget documents shows how much is spent on homeland security and by which agencies, though details about what that money is buying are scarce. The DHS budget was $60 billion last year. However, only $35 billion was designated for counterterrorism programs of various sorts. In the meantime, total federal funding for (small-h, small-s) homeland security was $68 billion -- a number that, in addition to the DHS money, includes $17 billion for the Department of Defense, plus around $4 billion each for the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, with the last few billion scattered across virtually every other federal agency in existence.
From the time this new security bureaucracy rumbled into operation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Washington's internal watchdog, called the DHS a "high risk" proposition. And it's never changed its tune. Regular GAO reports scrutinize the department and identify major problems. In March of last year, for instance, one GAO report noted that the office had recommended a total of 1,600 changes. At that time, the department had only "addressed about half of them" -- and addressed doesn't necessarily mean solved.
So rest assured, in the best of all possible homeland security worlds, there are only 800-odd issues outstanding, according to the government's own watchdog, after we as a nation poured $791 billion down the homeland security rabbit hole. Indeed, there remain gaping problems in the very areas that the DHS is supposedly securing on our behalf:
* Consider port security: you wouldn't have much trouble overnighting a weapon of mass destruction into the United States. Cargo terminals are the entry point for containers from all over the world, and a series of reports have found myriad vulnerabilities -- including gaps in screening for nuclear and radiological materials. After spending $200 million on new screening technology, the DHS determined it wouldn't deliver sufficient improvements and cancelled the program (but not the cost to you, the taxpayer).
* Then there are the problems of screening people crossing into this country. The lion's share of responsibility for border security lies with part of the DHS, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which had an $11.7 billion budget in fiscal 2012. But in the land of utter duplication that is Washington's version of counterterrorism, there is also something called the Border Security Program at the State Department, with a separate pot of funding to the tune of $2.2 billion last year. The jury's out on whether these programs are faintly doing their jobs, even as they themselves define them. As with so many other DHS programs, the one thing they are doing successfully is closing and locking down what was once considered an "open" society.
* For around $14 billion each year, the Department of Homeland Security handles disaster response and recovery through FEMA, something that's meant to encompass preparedness for man-made as well as natural disasters. But a 2012 investigation by the GAO found that FEMA employs an outdated method of assessing a disaster-struck region's ability to respond and recover without federal intervention -- helpfully, that report came out just a month before Hurricane Sandy.
* Recently, it came to light that the DHS had spent $431 million on a radio system for communication within the department -- but only one of more than 400 employees questioned about the system claimed to have the slightest idea how to use it. It's never surprising to hear that officials at separate agencies have trouble coordinating, but this was an indication that, even within the DHS, employees struggle with the basics of communication.
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