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New DHS head says agency needs change

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security has a $60 billion budget, the worst employee morale in the federal government and a mission portfolio so big and varied it doesn’t have a single definition of “homeland security.”

Tom Ridge, the first man to head DHS after it was formed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, told the Journal, for the first of the paper’s three-day series on the agency, that Homeland Security had “kind of lost their way.”

Now, according to an internal memo obtained last week by the Journal, the new secretary is acknowledging the agency has serious problems – an admission that is drawing praise from one of the agency’s most vocal critics in Congress.

JOHNSON: He's a former Pentagon lawyer

JOHNSON: He’s a former Pentagon lawyer

“It is clear to me … that DHS has yet to reach its full potential as an organization,” Secretary Jeh Johnson wrote in a six-page letter to senior Homeland Security managers dated April 22 – five days before the Journal launched its reports on the department’s expanding budget and “mission creep.” The Journal obtained the memo last week, after the series was published.

In his letter to 31 top-level DHS managers and advisers, Johnson said the department must “operate with much greater unity of effort” and said he wants to improve the department’s budgeting, procurement, strategic decisions and missions.

Johnson is a former Pentagon lawyer who was confirmed as homeland security secretary in December.

“We must have better traceability between strategic objectives, budgeting, acquisition decisions, operational planning and mission execution, in order to improve departmental cohesiveness and operational effectiveness,” Johnson wrote.

The six-page letter details four primary ways that the department can improve its operations and effectiveness.

Johnson said senior DHS managers will begin meeting regularly “in an environment of trust, and openly place on the table issues, arguments and disagreements concerning our most challenging issues.”

Johnson also directed top-level DHS officials in charge of the department’s finances to improve their budget reviews and acquisition oversight.

“Although much work has been done to date in the areas of joint requirements analysis, program and budget review, and acquisition oversight, more needs to be done to turn strategy into results,” Johnson wrote.

Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee and one of the most persistent congressional critics of DHS, told the Journal in an interview Friday that he was encouraged by Johnson’s letter and his overall leadership of the agency four months into his tenure.

“For the first time since the agency was created, they really have an effective manager,” Coburn said. “He wants to get his hands around the decision-making process because most of the waste at Homeland Security, and most of the stupidity, is because people aren’t being held accountable. I think Jeh Johnson is going to hold people making critical decisions accountable.”

In his memo, Johnson stressed that the department can “only be effective if cross-department operations are planned and executed in a coordinated fashion.”

DHS has lacked a coherent mission statement or even a single definition of homeland security, as well as clarity about responsibilities for homeland security among various agencies within the department or among federal, state and local governments, according to a Congressional Research Service study cited in the Journal series.

The Johnson memo also served to inform top DHS lieutenants that he will examine their specific responsibilities and division goals. Homeland Security was created in 2003 with the merging of 22 different federal agencies. Some of the agencies now included under the Homeland Security umbrella are Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“As Secretary of Homeland Security, it is my responsibility to understand from a departmental perspective how the activities, operations and programs … fit together in order to best meet departmental missions responsibilities,” Johnson wrote.

Coburn said that promise, in particular, is good news.

“He is actually learning what they are all doing,” Coburn said. “None of the other (former secretaries) actually knew what they (the various DHS department heads) were doing. You can’t run an organization that big unless you have an aggressive cop-manager insisting on accountability. So far, he’s done a good job.”

Coburn also responded to Johnson’s letter in writing on Thursday.

“We know the department faces many challenges,” Coburn wrote to the Cabinet secretary. “Over the past 11 years, DHS has struggled to coordinate its management and effectively execute many of its missions. The department-wide leadership and coordination plan outlined in your letter is a critical step to address these challenges and put DHS on track to become an effective agency.”

Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said DHS has “played an important role as an umbrella agency for domestic security” and he supports its work protecting the state’s border with Mexico, as well as its training of law enforcement officers in counterterrorism practices. But he said the Journal series raised “smart questions” about the Department of Homeland Security’s missions. The series examined how Homeland Security agents are increasingly working on local police cases.

“Serious questions have been raised by congressional oversight committees and in communities in New Mexico and around the country about inefficiency and mission creep at the agency,” Udall said. “Speaking as a former (New Mexico) attorney general, I also fear any step toward nationalizing our police force jeopardizes the accountability that law enforcement officers must feel toward the community they are responsible for protecting. Since DHS was created, I have spoken out against tactics used by its component agencies, such as TSA, which I believe sacrifice personal privacy without effectively protecting Americans’ security.

“I think Congress needs to do more to focus the mission of DHS, and as a member of the Appropriations Committee, I will continue to push for more accountability and effectiveness at the agency,” Udall added.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said the Journal series “brings to light some very important issues and underscores the critical need to streamline and consolidate congressional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security.”

“There is no question that DHS is made up of dedicated, patriotic men and women who make real sacrifices to ensure our nation’s security,” Heinrich said. “But as the third-largest agency in the federal government, with oversight from over 100 congressional committees and subcommittees, DHS’s mission needs to be more focused and its limits more clear.

“Additionally, in a post-9/11 era, it’s critical that we keep the right balance between protecting our nation against terrorism and preserving our civil liberties and way of life, without fear of excessive overreach from law enforcement agencies, be it federal, state or local.”

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