Mission Overload

Homeland Security's broad responsibilities spread contract dollars and controversy.

Homeland Security Department officials often describe DHS' mission as one of protecting the nation from dangerous people and dangerous goods, and then responding effectively if there's a failure in that protection. But the mission really is much broader and deeper. The department also is charged with responding to oil spills, ensuring a legal workforce, facilitating cross-border trade, providing services to immigrants and securing cyberspace. That's a lot to do for a department that just turned five and has a discretionary budget of about $35 billion. DHS officials have requested $38 billion in discretionary funds for fiscal 2009, but Congress has yet to approve that sum.

Not surprisingly, a department whose mission requires it to be all things to all people is going to generate a lot of disappointment. Depending on their constituencies, lawmakers either criticize Homeland Security officials for impeding trade, transportation and legal immigration with ill-conceived or poorly executed programs, or charge them with jeopardizing national security with lax border and transportation security and ineffective immigration enforcement methods.

As such, Homeland Security has invested billions of dollars in technology programs aimed at securing the border (the Secure Border Initiative network, its REAL ID effort), vetting people and goods entering the country (US VISIT, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, various cargo screening programs), verifying the employment eligibility of job seekers (E-Verify) and validating the status of workers in key fields such as transportation (Transportation Worker Identification Credential program). Every one of those programs has generated controversy. Lawmakers and the public have expressed concerns about the department's ability to balance privacy and security, and-in the case of SBInet-its ability to oversee contractors SAIC and Boeing Co. and hold them accountable for meeting complex contract requirements.

Homeland Security also has been buying ships and aircraft, mainly through the overstretched Coast Guard, which plans to spend $24 billion during the next two decades to recapitalize its aging fleet and communications assets. Structural problems with some patrol boats acquired under the program in late 2006 and concerns about security requirements for communications equipment aboard vessels have contributed to apprehension about the service's ability to oversee such a technically complex contract. The program, known as Deepwater, had been managed jointly by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. through their Integrated Coast Guard Systems consortium. But Commandant Adm. Thad Allen last year overhauled the service's acquisitions office and forced the contractors to cede their role of lead systems integrator back to the Coast Guard.

Another area of spending that has proved controversial is Homeland Security's grant programs for state and local first-responder organizations. For fiscal 2009, the Bush administration has requested about $2.2 billion for grants to first responders, cities, seaports, emergency fire and medical personnel and other groups, but before the budget request had even landed on lawmakers' desks many complained that DHS was shortchanging state and local personnel. Last year, Congress increased the department's request for grant funding by more than $1.5 billion, and it appears poised to do the same again in 2009.

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