On Guard

Despite criticism, DHS moves ahead with programs to beef up border protection and cybersecurity.

The Homeland Security Department has seen three secretaries, two administrations and several disasters, which served as crucial tests of its management capabilities. But in bureaucratic years the department is practically a newborn, and it is still struggling to define its role among its much older siblings in government.

DHS answers to 86 congressional committees and subcommittees, and its responsibilities range from preparing for a nuclear terrorist attack to rescuing Ohio fishermen stuck on an ice block in the middle of Lake Erie. In 2008, it continued to endure criticism that it is an ungainly bureaucracy without the focus or nimbleness needed to fight the electronic security wars of the 21st century. Despite haggling over privacy issues and its ability to oversee its projects, the department pushed for funding increases in the president's fiscal 2010 budget request. The common denominator, it seems, is technology.

Bricks-and-mortar spending accounts for much of the budget at DHS-including a Coast Guard request for $700 million in fiscal 2010 to purchase five cutters and two planes-but more and more funding is going to high-tech programs to protect the nation from dangerous intruders, whether they traverse the borders or cyberspace.

For instance, DHS has installed a new radio frequency identification system to monitor travelers passing through the Mexico border at San Ysidro, Calif., the largest land port of entry in the United States. The system allows DHS to quickly identify travelers with an enhanced passport, driver's license or State Department identification card to expedite the border-crossing process. The department deployed the system earlier this year and plans to expand it across the country as part of its Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. In testimony on Capitol Hill, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano touted RFID as one of many examples of how Homeland Security has developed specialized technology for border security, anti-terrorism and other functions.

Customs and Border Protection-the bureau that uses the radio frequency identification technology-saw its budget increase by nearly 20 percent in 2008, funding initiatives aimed at turning a technological eye on security, such as the E-Verify program and the Secure Border Initiative Network.

In 2008, Congress appropriated more than $1 billion for SBInet, which is heavily administered by Boeing Co. But the program has been saddled with delays and criticism on Capitol Hill. Despite some skepticism from Napolitano, who dealt with those issues firsthand when she was governor of Arizona, the Obama administration requested nearly $800 million for SBInet in 2010.

The 2010 budget request also includes $565 million for the Electronic Baggage Screening Program, an effort to scan all checked luggage at airports for explosives. And cybersecurity initiatives would get a boost of $355 million, or 20 percent, although the department has been criticized for lacking the clout to organize a governmentwide defense against online threats. In 2008, a nonpartisan panel suggested DHS shouldn't be in charge of cybersecurity. The administration has yet to act on all the recommendations, but it has shifted some of the coordination from DHS to the White House.

Both legislative chambers trimmed some of DHS' budget requests, but the department still is set to receive a funding increase of at least $2.6 billion in 2010.

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