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MISSION CREEP: Homeland Security a ‘runaway train’

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a01_jd_27may_Homeland_growthNEW2

First in a series

WASHINGTON – In November 2002, 14 months after terrorists slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, President George W. Bush signed a bill into law establishing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The department’s objective was simple, even if its task was not.

“The primary mission of the department is to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States; reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism; minimize the damage, and assist in the recovery from terrorist attacks that do occur within the United States,” the new law said.

The statute also specified that the Department of Homeland Security would respond to natural or human-caused disasters and monitor connections between drug traffickers and terrorists while coordinating efforts to “sever” such ties.

More than 11 years later, the department’s mission has expanded – greatly.

Today, in addition to protecting America’s borders and airports, the department is interrogating people suspected of pirating movies at Ohio theaters, seizing counterfeit NBA merchandise in San Antonio and working pickpocket cases alongside police in Albuquerque. Homeland Security agents are visiting elementary schools and senior centers to warn of dangers lurking on the Internet.

Some government watchdogs and civil liberties advocates – and even the nation’s first Department of Homeland Security secretary – question how those actions serve the purpose set forth in the 2002 law.

“They’ve kind of lost their way,” former Secretary Tom Ridge told the Journal in Washington this month. “I was proud to be associated with those men and women, but it just seems to me … the focus – the primary focus – has been substantially diminished.”

Meanwhile, a top Homeland Security official in Albuquerque said the department wants to enlarge its law enforcement presence – at least in New Mexico – even more.

“I really do want to expand the footprint as far as my side of Homeland Security,” said Kevin Abar, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New Mexico, in a Journal interview.

“Too many people think we do immigration, and we don’t really do any of that at all.”

Homeland Security Investigations falls under the jurisdiction of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and focuses “on a wide range of domestic and international activities” including financial and cyber crimes, narcotics, human smuggling and other offenses, according to the DHS website. The investigations unit has 10,000 employees and 6,700 special agents assigned to more than 200 U.S. cities and 47 foreign countries.

dhsbox_NEWSize, scope of DHS

Today, the Department of Homeland Security is the third-largest agency in the federal government, behind only the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense.

When created in 2002, DHS merged 22 pre-existing federal agencies into one, marking the largest reorganization of the federal government in more than 50 years. Among the agencies included under the Homeland Security umbrella are the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, Secret Service, Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In the first year of its existence, the Department of Homeland Security employed 180,000 full-time workers. Today, 240,000 people collect paychecks from the agency, according to its website.

The department’s budget has more than doubled since the agency’s inception in 2003, when it spent $29 billion. This year, DHS is slated to spend $61 billion. The department’s spending request for 2015 is about $60 billion, a $1 billion reduction from current-year spending – and a nod to the constricted federal budget climate.

Janet Napolitano, an Albuquerque native who served as the nation’s third secretary of homeland security during the first 4½ years of President Barack Obama’s time in office, is now president of the University of California. Through a university spokesman, Napolitano declined to be interviewed for this series.

Murky missions

A report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service last year found that more than a decade after the Department of Homeland Security’s creation – and despite the specific language in the law that created it – the sprawling agency still didn’t have a clear definition for “homeland security,” or a strategy for integrating the divergent missions that are supposed to achieve it. The report suggested the uncertainty could actually be compromising national security.

“The U.S. government does not have a single definition for ‘homeland security,’ ” the report said. “Multiple definitions, missions and an absence of prioritization results in consequences to the nation’s security.”

The Congressional Research Service report also pointed out that there had been no attempt “to align definitions and missions among disparate federal entities.”

“There is no clarity in the national strategies of federal, state, and local roles and responsibilities; and, potentially, funding is driving priorities rather than priorities driving the funding,” the report said.

The ambiguity of purpose and growing budget and workforce at DHS prompted Ridge to question the overall direction of the agency he helped establish.

“Someone needs to explain to me how critical all these new people are to the nation,” Ridge said. “Are they (DHS) getting so big they’re actually making work?”

Mark Randol, who served as a Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism expert from 2004 until 2008 and now teaches classes in homeland security at Eastern Kentucky University, said it’s too soon to tell whether the Department of Homeland Security’s organization and missions are a success or failure.

“The idea was that hopefully there would be some synergy there, some opportunities for greater collaboration and so forth,” Randol said, referring to the initial decision to combine so many agencies with seemingly disparate missions. “Whether that has worked out or not kind of remains to be seen.”

“We created this department (DHS), we made this investment and there were reasons this was a good idea,” Randol added. “They may not be perfect, but the department, I think, has started to get some traction and some expertise. Those things don’t come overnight.”

Benjamin Friedman, a research fellow in defense and homeland security at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, said that although the Homeland Security budget has grown, “it isn’t out of control” compared with some other federal agencies, and has actually shown some signs of slowing or even contracting, as evidenced by next year’s proposed $1 billion budget reduction.

“The defense budget is far bigger, and during the time that DHS was growing, it was growing at a similar clip,” Friedman said.

But Friedman also said Homeland Security’s lack of a clear integrated mission makes its budget justifications “hard to understand” and raises legitimate questions about the bang taxpayers are getting for their buck.

“Perfect safety is an illusion; we could spend 10 times what we spend on Homeland Security and still not approach it,” Friedman said, adding that the department desperately needs to produce a more realistic cost-benefit analysis.

“We’re spending big bucks chasing some pretty small dangers,” he said.

Lack of leadership

Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard Extension School, has called the Department of Homeland Security “a colossal and inefficient boondoggle.”

In a Journal interview, she said cultural problems at DHS are festering because of duplications of missions among agencies within the department, as well as a lack of top-level leadership.

“DHS was put together as one great big organized department, and in fact they’ve became one big disorganized group of stovepipes,” she said.

Thirteen of 48 of the department’s top leadership positions are either vacant or staffed with acting directors, according to the department’s website.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Jeh Johnson a former Pentagon lawyer, as the nation’s fourth secretary of homeland security in December. In response to questions from the Senate Homeland Security Committee before his confirmation hearing, Johnson cited the vacancies as among the department’s biggest problems.

“There is a leadership vacuum within DHS of alarming proportions,” Johnson wrote.

Low morale

As leadership positions go unfilled in the Department of Homeland Security, its employees ranked dead-last in morale among the 19 largest federal agencies for the past two years, according to the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” survey compiled each year from Office of Personnel Management data.

When debating critics of DHS, many of the department’s defenders cite one fact as trumping all others: In the time since its inception, there have been no terrorist attacks in the U.S. even close to the scale of Sept. 11. Last year’s bombings at the Boston Marathon, while horrific, killed just three people.

Then-President George W. Bush stands on a burned firetruck amid the rubble of the World Trade Center in Manhattan on Sept. 14, 2011, three days after airliners hit the twin towers. Fourteen months later, Bush signed a bill into law establishing the Department of Homeland Security. (Doug Mills/The Associated Press)

Then-President George W. Bush stands on a burned firetruck amid the rubble of the World Trade Center in Manhattan on Sept. 14, 2011, three days after airliners hit the twin towers. Fourteen months later, Bush signed a bill into law establishing the Department of Homeland Security. (Doug Mills/The Associated Press)

“Can we attribute that to DHS? I don’t think so,” Johnson-Freese said. “I would argue that these other departments have been successful in spite of DHS. There are parts of DHS that are very important. The Coast Guard is a huge part of homeland security, but they were doing their job before the Department of Homeland Security. In fact, you could argue they were doing it better.”

An Associated Press investigation from 2011 lends credence to Johnson-Freese’s assertion. The news service found that a 25-year, $24.2 billion overhaul initiated around the time of DHS’s inception and intended to add or upgrade more than 250 vessels to the Coast Guard’s aging fleet had produced just two new ships after more than $7 billion had been spent.

“I’ll be the first to admit, we weren’t prepared to start spending this money and supervising a project this big,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp told the news service.

Johnson-Freese said there is little evidence the department is evaluating ways to become more efficient and is instead simply seeking more responsibilities that have little to do with the tightly focused mission established in its 2002 authorizing legislation.

“This is a runaway train,” she said.

Oversight

When considering the evolution and growth of the Department of Homeland Security, a natural question that arises is, which congressional committees have oversight of the department?

A better question might be, which committees don’t?

Today, no fewer than 100 congressional committees and subcommittees have some kind of jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security. In 2004, that number was 86, according to a report by the 9/11 Commission. New Mexico’s current congressional delegation has no members on either the House or Senate Homeland Security committees, which have primary jurisdiction over the department.

Ridge, who served as a congressman and governor of Pennsylvania before becoming the nation’s first homeland security secretary, said the staggering number of congressional committees with oversight jurisdiction confuses the agency with mixed messages.

“Congress has not done its job,” Ridge said. “It’s helped perpetuate some of the (organizational) silos and frustrated some of the integration.”

Several experts interviewed for this series said members of congressional committees and subcommittees are reluctant to give up oversight responsibilities because the assignment is viewed as prestigious back home. And the fact that the department doles out billions of dollars to local law enforcement agencies for new equipment, for which members of Congress quickly take credit in news releases, only adds to the political appeal.

“They complain when they try to consolidate” Homeland Security jurisdiction within Congress, Ridge said. “They just don’t want to give it up. That’s one of the most fundamental excesses you have to deal with.”

Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, told the Journal the myriad committees with jurisdiction muddy the DHS mission.

“There are a lot hearings and layers of review, and it’s not necessarily the optimal arrangement either for efficiency or quality of oversight,” he said.

Secretary Johnson acknowledged the oversight problem in remarks to the House Homeland Security Committee in February.

“More than 10 years after the department’s creation, it is time to fulfill this 9/11 Commission recommendation and streamline the current oversight structure,” Johnson said.

Randol, who generally defends the department’s organization and mission, agreed. But he also said he’s not holding his breath in hopes that Congress can make it happen.

“Congress can’t agree on a lot of very simple things, much less something that is very complex,” Randol said.

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