Those are just a few of a multitude of glaring problems inside the now decade-old department. Because homeland security is not confined to one agency, however, rest assured that neither is its bungling:
* There is, for instance, that $17 billion in homeland security funding at the Department of Defense -- a mountain of cash for defending against terrorist attacks, protecting U.S. airspace, and providing security at military bases. But perhaps defense officials feel that $17 billion is insufficient, since an October 2012 report by the GAO found the Pentagon had outdated and incomplete plans for responding to a domestic attack, including confusion about the chain of command should such an event take place. That should be no surprise, though: the Pentagon is so replete with oversight problems and obsolete, astronomically expensive programs that it makes the DHS look like a trim, well-oiled machine.
* Or consider the domestic counterterrorism unit at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), which enjoyed $461 million in homeland security funding last year and is housed not at the DHS or the Pentagon but at the Department of Justice. ATF made headlines for giving marked firearms to Mexican smugglers and losing track of them -- and then finding that the weapons were used in heinous crimes. More recently, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, ATF has drawn attention because it fails one of the most obvious tests of oversight and responsibility: it lacks a confirmed director at the helm of its operations. (According to The Hill newspaper, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) is currently holding up President Obama's appointment to head the agency.)
Washington has poured staggering billions into securing the so-called homeland, but in so many of the areas meant to be secured there remain glaring holes the size of that gaping wound in the Titanic's side. And yet over the past decade -- even with these problems -- terrorist attacks on the homeland have scarcely hurt a soul. That may offer a clue into just how misplaced the very notion of the Department of Homeland Security was in the first place. In the wake of 9/11, pouring tiny percentages of that DHS money into less flashy safety issues, from death by food to death by gun to death by car, to mention just three, might have made Americans genuinely safer at, by comparison, minimal cost.
Perhaps the strangest part of homeland security operations may be this: there is no agreed-upon definition for just what homeland security is. The funds Washington has poured into the concept will soon enough approach a trillion dollars and yet it's a concept with no clear boundaries that no one can agree on. Worse yet, few are asking the hard questions about what security we actually need or how best to achieve it. Instead, Washington has built a sprawling bureaucracy riddled with problems and set it on autopilot.
And that brings us to today. Budget cuts are in the pipeline for most federal programs, but many lawmakers vocally oppose any reductions in security funding. What's painfully clear is this: the mere fact that a program is given the label of national or homeland security does not mean that its downsizing would compromise American safety. Overwhelming evidence of waste, duplication, and poor management suggests that Washington could spend far less on security, target it better, and be so much safer.
Meanwhile, the same report that warned in early 2001 of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil also recommended redoubling funding for education in science and technology.
In the current budget-cutting fever, the urge to protect boundless funding for national security programs by dismantling investment essential to this country's greatness -- including world-class education and infrastructure systems -- is bound to be powerful. So whenever you hear the phrase "homeland security," watch out: your long-term safety may be at risk.
Mattea Kramer is research director at National Priorities Project, where Chris Hellman is senior research analyst. Both are TomDispatch regulars. They co-authored the book A People's Guide to the Federal Budget.
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Copyright 2013 Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellman
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