Homeland defense effort breaks down walls of government

On September 11, 2001, it was more dangerous to be a bond trader in New York or a paper-pusher in the Pentagon than a foot soldier in a frontline fighting unit. Since September 11, casualties have been higher among tabloid photo editors and Capitol Hill staffers than among Navy bomber pilots.

Since September 11, the first line of defense against this insidious foreign adversary has been, not federal armed forces, but local firefighters, police, and medical technicians. Since September 11, America's enemies have been launching their attacks, not from distant bases overseas, but from suburban neighborhoods such as Laurel, Md., Boca Raton, Fla., and Trenton, N.J.

So when the twin towers collapsed on September 11, it was not only physical walls that came tumbling down, it was also decades-old divisions of labor between the various parts of American government: between federal and local, intelligence and law enforcement, military and civilian, and above all, foreign and domestic. There is no clear "at home" or "abroad" anymore. There is just one tightly interconnected world of dangers.

To get an idea of the number of federal agencies potentially involved in counterterror efforts, just trace what the terrorists were doing in the days before the attack of September 11. As they set out for America months before the attacks, the CIA presumably was trying to recruit some of their Al Qaeda comrades as informants; the State Department, to persuade Arab governments to arrest them; the Treasury, to freeze their bank accounts; the military, to plan a raid on their Afghan training camps. As they came into the country, Customs checked their baggage; Immigration checked their names against a watch list. As they lived among us, the FBI tried to track them down. As they boarded their chosen planes, the Federal Aviation Administration was trying to keep airport and airline security up to date on the latest threats.

They still got through.

In the aftermath, the National Guard, Air National Guard, and Coast Guard began patrols on land, air, and sea. The Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped in to stanch the bleeding and to rebuild. Even the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms sent an arson and explosives investigation team to the smoldering Pentagon.

That's a baker's dozen of federal agencies at work, and that's not to mention the dozens of state and local agencies involved in New York City, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The subsequent anthrax attacks brought in Health and Human Services--with all of its agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention--and an array of state and local health agencies, in a confused stew that was widely criticized for having no clear authority in charge.

In the event of an attack with chemical weapons, the Environmental Protection Agency would jump in; a nuclear attack would bring in the Energy Department. All told, at the federal level alone, "you've got 43 government agencies involved," said Randall Larsen, director of Homeland Security for the Arlington, Va.-based think tank ANSER (short for Analytic Services Inc.). "This is one of the most complex challenges we've ever faced as a nation."

The problem is not with the individual elements, but in bringing them all together. With all the thousands of skilled and dedicated troops, intelligence agents, law enforcers, firefighters, and medical workers who make up the American team against terror, said Larsen, "we've got great athletes.... But we don't have a coach, we don't have a game plan, and we're not practicing. How do you think we're going to do in the big game?"

On Columbus Day, President Bush named a coach, at least for defensive plays: former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, the first director of homeland security. Other officials, such as retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing, a special-forces veteran, will orchestrate the counterterrorist offensive overseas. But what authority they will really have to knock bureaucratic heads together is an open question that is being hotly debated, especially on Capitol Hill. Legislation is already in the works to give Ridge a stronger statutory base of power, perhaps even a new Cabinet department.

A new law and a new agency are the traditional Washington response to a new problem. But drawing neat boxes on an organizational chart will not address the fundamental lesson of September 11. When everyone from the CIA to the FAA, from the White House to the local firehouse, must share information and coordinate action, there is no way to draw a box big enough to contain the entire problem. No single agency will suffice, however well designed.

And "homeland defense" is not enough. No amount of effort on the home front will make America secure without good intelligence from overseas about the threat, and any action the United States takes abroad will inevitably rebound upon the homeland, by either provoking or preempting new terrorist attacks.

The war on terrorism ultimately involves every agency and level of government. Winning it will take more than a new Cabinet department. It will take a different approach to organizing the government as a whole, one that goes to basic questions of who has authority over whom.

"There are four critical questions: Who shall command? With what forces? By what means? To what end?" said retired Army Col. C. Kenneth Allard, author of Command, Control, and the Common Defense. "We're not close at all" to clear answers, he added.

Yet here and there throughout the government--in the military, in law enforcement, even in the much-disparaged "war on drugs"--there are working models of how to bring different agencies together. Officials are experimenting with a new theory of organization, one that owes less to today's rigid bureaucracies with their tidy jurisdictions than to the ever-mutating networks of the World Wide Web. Fixing specific agencies still matters: It will be the agencies that fight this war. But it may be interagency coordination that will win it.

The Current Problem

The U.S. government was just not designed with terrorists in mind. That is why 43 different agencies have at least some jurisdiction in the war on terror.

After the first World Trade Center attack, in 1993, the Clinton administration did a great deal to clarify roles. But without sweeping statutory reform, there are legal limits to how radically the executive branch can carve up the turf.

"It's a function of the law," said Ronald Lee, a former associate deputy attorney general who in 1997-98 led a government-wide review of counterterror strategy. "Congress gives to the head of each agency final authority in a given area."

The problem is that any terrorist attack would cut across several of those areas. If people started getting sick from toxic chemicals sprayed over the food supply, as one example, the crime would clearly be a case for the FBI--and equally clearly for Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Agriculture Department.

Complicating matters more, government has historically taken what the business world would call a "vertical integration" approach. Just as an Industrial Age carmaker wanted to own everything from rubber tree plantations, ensuring a supply of tires, to auto dealerships, ensuring access to customers, so have federal agencies traditionally tried to have every tool relevant to their task, from regulators to investigators to paramilitary SWAT teams.

Thus the Treasury Department, charged with collecting fines and fees on everything from unlicensed guns to imported prunes, has not one but three sets of armed law enforcement agents: The Secret Service protects the President and fights counterfeiters; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms handles explosives and arson; and the Customs Service watches for contraband at the borders.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department has the FBI to track down criminals, including those who use alcohol and firearms, as well as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, whose 10,000 uniformed Border Patrol agents try to keep unwanted individuals out of the country.

And the service that keeps both illegal immigrants and illegal goods away from U.S. shores, the Coast Guard, reports to the Transportation Secretary in peacetime but to the Pentagon in war. The Coast Guard, Customs, and the INS have largely incompatible computer systems, making it hard to collate data on bad things being brought into the country with data on the bad people bringing them in by land, air, or sea. And an intense and long-standing FBI-ATF rivalry led to serious friction at "TOPOFF," a 2000 counter-terror exercise on how to bring different agencies together.

September 11, fortunately, has eased some of the bickering. "We all work to help the FBI," said ATF Director Bradley Buckles, dismissing former feuds. "We have over 500 agents working on these investigations with the FBI ... a third of our special-agent workforce."

The national mechanism for this collaboration is the FBI's Strategic Information Operations Center, which has both domestic and foreign agencies working side by side. And across the country, some 30 Joint Terrorism Task Forces, set up in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and each led by the FBI, are bringing together all federal, state, and local law enforcement in a given region to share information.

So, who is in charge? "It's clear," said Buckles, "that when things are terrorist-related, the FBI is responsible."

But responsibility is, in fact, not always clear. By law, the FBI responds to federal crimes; FEMA, to disasters; and the military, to threats from "all enemies foreign and domestic." But every act of terror is at once a crime, a disaster, and an enemy attack. And despite Clinton-era clarifications, the triangular relationship among these agencies remains unsettled.

Nor does it help that the three agencies could not be more different. The FBI has a Cabinet-level champion in the Attorney General, 12,000 armed agents, a $3.2 billion budget, and the authority to take over investigations, sometimes trampling local law enforcement agencies. FEMA has 4,000 full-time personnel, a $1.2 billion budget, and, by law, a bottom-up approach of answering local governments' requests for help instead of issuing orders. Meanwhile, the $300 billion gorilla of the federal government, Defense, hangs back, historically reluctant, and often legally forbidden, to take on domestic roles.

When Congress, for example, wanted to prepare the nation's 120 largest cities to respond better to poison gas, germ warfare, or nuclear fallout, it initially turned to the Pentagon, which has long experience training its own troops for such attacks. But the military had to create domestic connections from scratch and in so doing set off culture clashes with its civilian students. So in 2000, the Justice Department took over the program, and in the process duplicated FEMA's long-standing system of grants and training for local firefighters.

The duplication carries through from anticipating an attack to coping with the attack itself. The FBI's effort to gather evidence about the terrorists runs alongside FEMA's effort to save the victims. Although the two agencies' command posts exchange liaison officers, planning documents describe two parallel chains of command: Neither has final authority over the other.

And the Defense Department can opt in or out of either system. Civilian agencies may request military support, but cannot demand it. Both interagency documents and Pentagon spokespeople make it very clear that the Defense Secretary has final say over just what military units are used, and how. At home, Allard's questions, "Who commands? With what forces?" have these answers: "Either the FBI, or FEMA, or both, with whatever the Pentagon will give them."

In any case, this whole tripartite structure for responding to a terrorist attack should be the last line of defense: far better to stop the bad guys at the border. The failure to do just that before September 11 has aroused considerable ire in Congress. But the details of expired visas are secondary to the basic structural problems. Customs, the INS, and the Coast Guard all have overlapping jurisdictions and different Cabinet masters. And none of them has the intelligence it needs.

Terrorist Mohamed "Atta was apparently on a CIA watch list," said Elaine Kamarck of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "It took several months for the CIA watch list to make it to the INS, at which point the INS said, 'He's already in the country, too late.' "

Foreign, domestic, and border agencies all need to share much more intelligence, much faster, Kamarck said. "But right now, the CIA no more trusts the immigration service ... than it trusts the man in the moon."

The CIA has made great strides in recent years in sharing information with law enforcement, exchanging liaison officers, and setting up a joint counterterrorism center with the FBI. But even in its overseas domain, the CIA is not always in the loop. Created in 1947 as a clearinghouse for clues from all the other U.S. intelligence agencies--hence "Central"--the CIA ultimately went into the spying business for itself because the other services shared their secrets only grudgingly. The result is often a fragmented picture of the world.

Similarly, it is difficult to get the CIA and the State and Defense departments to coordinate their antiterror operations overseas. An elaborate array of interagency committees is in place to harmonize foreign policy among the agencies, starting at the top in the National Security Council and reaching down to interagency "country teams" within individual embassies.

But State and Defense abroad, like FEMA and the FBI at home, still have two separate and parallel chains of command, neither with final authority over the other. Said one State counter-terror expert, "Every agency, within reason, has its own unilateral ability to do what it wants within its own charter and funding."

This, then, is the fundamental problem with interagency coordination today: Because the system was largely set up by the agencies, for the agencies, it does not, and by law cannot, impinge on any agency's autonomy. Although much has been clarified, the interagency committees remain a system of consensus and collaboration, not command and control. The answer to the question "Who shall command?" is: "Everyone and no one."

No one, said retired Army Gen. William Hartzog, "can issue orders to various elements of the interagency and make it stick, shy of the Vice President." But that may be about to change.

Ridge and the Hill

Just nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush, during his appearance before a joint session of Congress, named Gov. Ridge as his new homeland security coordinator. The applause had hardly died down in the House chamber before the doubts arose.

Many members feared that, like earlier high-profile presidential aides on vital issues, Ridge would be yet another misnamed "czar," without real power to set budgets, order action, and generally corral the agencies into a common effort. What they were asking, politely, was, "Who shall command?"

"Creating the office is a good step," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican who had been pushing largely unheeded legislation about homeland security long before Sept. 11. "What I would like to see is a homeland security agency with its own budget, with direct authority," he said. "I'm just worried that a 'czar' approach, that doesn't have that money and that chain of command, will not be as effective."

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Curt Weldon was characteristically more blunt: "If he doesn't have any budget control, he's a paper tiger. And I told him that."

Congress has some cause for concern. The relationship among Ridge, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, computer security coordinator Dick Clarke, and newly named counterterror aide Gen. Wayne Downing remains unclear. The executive order creating Ridge's office uses the word "coordinate" more than 30 times; the words "command" or "control," never.

It is hard to avoid the echoes of past czars, including Clarke himself-widely hailed as full of bright ideas but devoid of authority--or the successive "drug czars" who have never stopped the drug trade. None of these czars had strong statutory powers. So, naturally, Congress sees the solution as a new law.

But underlying this debate is a basic difference of approach between the executive and legislative branches. Congress has always favored sturdy, statutory structures with clear lines of oversight so it can retain control; the White House has always preferred presidential flexibility and freedom.

The work of institutional historian and political scientist Amy Zegart--who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation under the guidance of then-professor Condoleezza Rice--reveals the presidential perspective: "The more you nail things down in statutory language, the worse off you are in terms of organizational effectiveness," said Zegart. "Reform has to come from the White House."

Zegart argued that by fixing bureaucratic compromises in law, the National Security Act of 1947 crippled the CIA's power to coordinate the other intelligence services, leading to surprises such as Sept. 11.

By contrast, Zegart said, the National Security Council staff grew in power precisely because it was a legislative afterthought, so vaguely defined in statute that the President could reshape it to his own purposes. "Where is the national security adviser in the National Security Act? It isn't there," said Zegart. "[Yet] the national security adviser almost always has more influence than the Secretary of State."

The advisers have had no congressional overseers to divide their loyalty, no administrative duties to divide their attention. Beholden to no one agency, they can work with all. And administration sources have made clear that Ridge's office is consciously modeled, down to the size of its staff, on the national security adviser's.

Although many White House offices come and go, and their influence waxes and wanes, the long period of the Cold War made the national security adviser essential, and powerful. Sept. 11 may do the same thing for the adviser on homeland security.

"This is the President's primary focus," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., another longtime voice in the wilderness crying for counterterrorism reform. "So nobody should have any doubt about the power and status of Tom Ridge." That said, Shays added, "statutory authority would be very helpful.... And given this is all-out war, anything that's helpful becomes essential."

The leading legislation to make Ridge more powerful is Thornberry's, with a Senate version sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa. Both bills are inspired by a commission that reported early this year and was co-chaired by retired Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman. The bills would rationalize border security by pulling Customs, the Coast Guard, and the Border Patrol out of Treasury, Transportation, and Justice respectively and uniting them under one Cabinet-level officer. This new "National Homeland Security Agency" would also incorporate the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The combination, proponents say, would give scattered, underfunded efforts the critical mass to win funding and high-level attention.

But the Hart-Rudman reforms still don't solve the basic problem: the lack of a single authority to defend the homeland. While the new agency could enhance border defenses, it would still perpetuate the existing dual chain of command, with FEMA separate from the FBI. The proposed agency would have the responsibility to stop terrorists at the border and to clean up after an attack--yet would not have the law enforcement capability in between to track them after they entered the country but before they struck.

So, say some experts, why not put everything under the Attorney General? The Justice Department already owns both the FBI and the Border Patrol; the Office of Justice Programs gives terrorism-preparedness grants to local agencies; and the FBI's Strategic Information Operations Center already links the CIA, State, and Defense. Consolidating all homeland disaster relief, border security, and domestic law enforcement would create an appropriate domestic counterweight to the Defense Department.

But could Justice simultaneously handle everything from antitrust lawsuits to counterterrorist operations? No way, said commission co-Chairman Warren Rudman. Civil liberties concerns aside, he said, "there is no agency in government that can handle this, as well as its other responsibilities, without becoming a jumbled, jumbled mess."

The war on terror may just be too complex for any one agency to manage. But foreign intelligence, overseas offensives, domestic law enforcement, and disaster preparedness all have to come together somewhere. And while Ridge and Rice can coordinate at the highest levels, their few hundred staffers can hardly harmonize all the day-to-day details. Orchestrating a victory over terror will take more than new bureaucracies. It will take a new approach to government.

The Face of the Future

Government in recent years has made great strides in connecting its different bureaucratic boxes to each other. But despite all the liaison officers and interagency coordination centers, sometimes the left hand still doesn't even know the right hand exists.

Rep. Weldon tells a story about a back-channel meeting he had at the height of the Kosovo conflict with a shadowy Serbian power broker, Dragomir Karic. Key State Department officials had never heard of Karic, and intelligence offered little detail. So upon Weldon's return from the rendezvous, the CIA and the FBI both called the congressman--separately--and begged to be briefed.

Weldon sat both agencies down together and held forth at length on Karic's economic, criminal, and political connections. Then he told them how he had found out so much about this mysterious Serb: "I went to the Army's 'Information Dominance Center,' " an Army intelligence unit that Weldon had been instrumental in funding. "They gave me eight pages," Weldon said. "The CIA gave me a paragraph." Neither the CIA nor the FBI had known the Army capability existed.

The Army's experimental system, since taken over by the military's Special Operations Command, goes well beyond existing interagency information-sharing. Current coordination centers tend to have a separate terminal for each participating agency's database; pulling the intelligence together is up to the human staff.

Weldon's system, which he wants to expand into a "National Operations and Analysis Hub," taps directly into each participating database-the FBI and CIA have already signed on-and collates the data from every source on a particular subject, by computer, showing the system's users the significance of facts they did not even know they knew.

The crucial innovation is that this "hub" is not just another new intelligence agency. It would not necessarily even be in a physical place. Instead, it is a new model of organization: a network connecting other existing networks into a greater whole. Right now, government's biggest problem with the Information Age--indeed, everybody's problem--is too much data and too little analysis. But such a hub system could use commercially available software to connect the dots automatically.

These new insights could guide new kinds of anti-terrorist operations. With today's understanding of disease, a doctor can prevent gangrene, not by sawing off a limb, but by carefully sterilizing the wound and its environment. With tomorrow's understanding of foreign threats, the theory goes, the United States would not have to flatten entire enemy countries, but could subtly apply diplomatic, propaganda, financial, and military pressure at crucial weak points to cause a terrorist network to break apart, without civilian carnage that would turn neutral parties against us.

Such an operation might involve simultaneously bombing hard-line fighters in one place, bribing disaffected enemy commanders in another, and dropping food supplies to refugees in a third part of the same country. In short, it might look a whole lot like what the United States is trying now in Afghanistan.

Coordinating such a complex campaign requires not just shared intelligence, but a new way to plan and organize. Designers of past operations all too often started with an available means and applied it to the ends, whether it was appropriate or not. Clinton's 1998 cruise missile strikes aimed at a factory in Sudan and at largely empty terrorist camps in Afghanistan linked to Osama bin Laden offer a good example.

The U.S. government had missiles that could strike at long distances with little risk, so it used them, and in so doing hurt bin Laden little and boosted his prestige a lot. The new style of planning--called "effects-based"--starts instead with the desired result (the effects), works backward to look at what capabilities to use, and only then tailors an organization to the task. The ideal is to bring together every useful tool regardless of what agency owns it. The corporate analogy is no longer General Motors, which relies on having and doing everything in-house, but a start-up firm hiring specialized subcontractors as needed.

These are "virtual organizations that come together for a particular task," said David Ozolek, an infantry-grunt-turned-information-guru at the military's Joint Forces Command, which had led extensive interagency experiments with the concept long before Sept. 11. As with Weldon's intelligence "hub," said Ozolek, "the model is not of an agency or a superagency above the agencies, but a collaborative relationship."

Still, even in a collaborative relationship, someone has to be in charge. "Ultimately, it's going to have to come down to one guy making the tough calls," Ozolek said. "That doesn't change."

So it comes back to the basic question: "Who shall command?" And how can that "commander" get the agencies to break out of their bureaucratic boxes and combine into constantly evolving collaborative structures, without hopelessly confusing who does what for whom?

The good news is that right now, today, there are working models of how to do this. And one of them, ironically, is the oldest institution in America: the National Guard.

"We've been in the homeland defense business since our beginning nearly 365 years ago, with the Massachusetts Bay Colony militia," said Maj. Gen. Raymond Rees, vice chief of the National Guard Bureau, which links all 54 state and territorial guards with the Pentagon.

Since September, Guard units have operated in three different modes with no apparent confusion. In New York City, Guard troops under the governor's command and funded by state budgets are meeting the local need for security and logistical support around the clean-up site. Other Guard units, under presidential orders and using federal funds, are flying patrols over U.S. cities. And at airports around the country, Guard units under their state governors' command, but federally funded, are meeting a national security need but working under local control.

This balancing act has never been easy. But Guard units do routinely switch from one master and one mission to another without losing track of who is currently in charge.

Since 1986, when the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act strengthened interservice collaboration, the active military has had a similar switching system. The Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps chiefs have wide authority to train, equip, and organize their respective services. But they have no power to command them in the field. Instead, the services are "force providers" to the interservice (or "joint") commanders in chief, who order up different types of troops--one unit from Service A, one from Column B--to get the right balance of air, land, sea, and special forces for the particular mission, much like a Chinese dinner balances tastes and textures.

This model has already been used beyond the military as well. FBI agents have actually commanded military counter-terrorist teams in prison riots and hostage crises, and in one case in the 1980s, the FBI used Navy SEAL commandos to capture a terrorist and bring him to the United States.

Today, Joint Interagency Task Forces bring together forces from the Coast Guard, Customs, Immigration, and the Navy for the war on drugs. Coast Guard admirals report to Navy ones, while Navy vessels routinely carry Coast Guard detachments to perform the searches, seizures, and arrests that the Navy cannot legally conduct. Agencies from the DEA to the CIA provide intelligence tips.

"It works seamlessly," said Vice Adm. Thomas Collins, vice commandant of the Coast Guard. "People say, `Oh, the government is not coordinated.' But there are things that are in force today that are working well.... We've got to build off those."

Using these new structures across the government will take a change in attitudes. Instead of coordinating their actions by consensus through committees, agencies will have to accept giving up control, albeit temporarily, of assets and people to interagency task forces.

That will take a new breed of leader. The Goldwater-Nichols Act worked for the military because it set up a system of incentives: Any officer who wanted to make general or admiral first had to work and study alongside officers from the other services, serving in "joint" headquarters and taking months of special joint education courses. Today, several experts have suggested, Congress could require interagency task force experience and cross-training for any official seeking promotion to the civilian equivalent of general, the Senior Executive Service. That would encourage the best and brightest to break out of agency boxes and cultivate a broader perspective.

So we have preliminary answers to Allard's four questions:

Who shall command? A new interagency elite.

With what forces? Assets drawn from different agencies and tailored to the task at hand.

By what means? Flexible, collaborative networks.

To what ends? To secure the prize Franklin Delano Roosevelt held up at the start of another global war: freedom from fear.

Elisabeth Frater contributed to this report.

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