On the anniversary of our gravest terrorist attack, federal agencies take stock of the quest to keep America safe
Soon after assuming office in January 2009, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wanted to send an agencywide email. She got some bad news from tech support: The department, then in its sixth year after the merger of 22 agencies, lacked the capability to send a message to all employees. A work-around had to be arranged.
Such improvisation may epitomize what Homeland Security-and much of the rest of the government security apparatus-has been through in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes that dramatically reset the national agenda.
Government functions as varied as intelligence gathering, warfighting, transportation safety, border security and emergency response abruptly were recast with new urgency. And the entity spearheading it all is a still-evolving behemoth whose multiple components continue to endure public wrath when a new threat materializes.
In July, during the run-up to the 9/11 remembrances slated to unfold across the country this month, Napolitano's department released a pre-emptive review of its efforts to implement the recommendations issued in 2004 by the congressionally appointed independent 9/11 commission. "Over the past decade, we have made great strides to secure our nation against a large attack or disaster, to protect critical infrastructure and cyber networks, and to engage a broader range of Americans in the shared responsibility for security," she said.
The report ticked off progress in creating and updating terrorist watch lists, screening passengers and baggage, gathering reports of suspicious activity, creating 72 fusion centers to compile threat-related information, leading the government's cybersecurity protection strategy, and, perhaps most important, expanding information sharing among agencies.
Verdicts from other observers are more varied.
Former Indiana Democrat Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the 9/11 commission, told the House Homeland Security Committee in May that too many communities "had not solved the problem of a unified command structure in the event of a disaster," particularly in the area of radio interoperability for emergency responders. He lamented that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, established in 2004, "is not the driving force of the intelligence community that the 9/11 commission envisioned." And he expressed disappointment that the Obama administration had not empaneled the recommended Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
To Clark Kent Ervin, a former Homeland Security inspector general now at the Aspen Institute, the government has "a lot to show for the time, money and attention" spent to enhance aviation security. "That makes sense because that was the means by which we were attacked," he says. He cites mandatory locks on cockpit doors, armed pilots and thousands of new air marshals as advances.
"Our screeners are better paid, trained and motivated than when they were contractors," Ervin adds. And he says the Transportation Security Administration is doing better at fully screening air cargo for explosives and sharing watch-list information from foreign airlines.
Finally, Ervin says, "information sharing is largely a good-news story. Those in the intelligence community would say it is night and day compared with how little was shared before 9/11." The best evidence, he says, is the success of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May.
But a harsher view is offered by Coleen Rowley, the one-time FBI counsel in Minneapolis who made national headlines in 2002 as the whistleblower who said her agency ignored signs of a hijacker making preparations before 9/11. She believes the billions spent on counterterrorism represent "a gross overreaction to 9/11-I don't think there's been any progress in the past decade," she says. The premise has been to "prevent terrorism by throwing money at it, but it hasn't been done in a careful or judicious way."
As the most visible player, Homeland Security has suffered its share of setbacks. This January, Napolitano announced DHS was scrapping the often-mocked color-coded threat advisory system in favor of a simpler process to distribute information about security threats. In July 2010, a Government Accountability Office study showed that 16 suspected terrorists involved in six plots in the past five years had moved through eight airports. (A further sign of the pressure on Homeland Security is the fact that GAO has produced some 1,000 reports or testimonies on its issues and performance.) The department continues to be caught between competing political agendas.
Republicans who once championed large budgets more recently have tried to scale back. And the 2002 legislative battle waged on national security themes that ended with a ban on DHS workers gaining union representation was refought in 2011 with a different result. After the American Federation of Government Employees won organizing rights in balloting, AFGE President John Gage said, "It's amazing that it has come almost full circle in that these valuable employees want a voice at work. When someone implies that being a union member is a detriment to national security, we want to be in their face to say, 'Explain yourself.' "
Learning to Share
The failure of U.S. intelligence to head off the 9/11 attacks always will be recalled as a great what-if. That's why employees in many agencies were especially disheartened by the Dec. 25, 2009, incident in which a Nigerian national was caught aboard a Detroit-bound passenger plane with an explosive device in his underwear. Again the government had failed to connect the dots: A Senate investigation found 14 distinct mistakes in handling that threat.
The big fix to the scattered U.S. intelligence community was supposed to be the centralization of authority as mandated by the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. But the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, currently led by James Clapper, is regarded by many as a work in progress that lacks budget authority and whose influence may depend on the director's compatibility with the president.
The tepid reviews of the reorganization were made clear at a June forum on management lessons of 9/11 sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service.
Former House Intelligence Committee member Jane Harman, who heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says top-level intelligence summaries now provide "a more accurate picture" of the level of consensus in the often-fractured intelligence agencies. But she thinks "the real senior point person for intelligence in the Bush administration was [Vice President] Dick Cheney, and . . . the real senior point person for intelligence in the Obama administration is [Deputy National Security Adviser] John Brennan."
Similarly, former CIA Director Michael Hayden praised the new structure for permitting the National Counterterrorism Center- which he called a success- to report directly to the ODNI, but Hayden argued the arrangement has "birth defects" in that it "depends on personal relationships."
David Barton, a former Senate staffer who worked on the 2004 legislation and is now an adjunct professor at The George Washington University, says that overall the law "has made the intelligence community more effective, but the DNI needs more clout, especially budget clout, to make sure that the bureaucracies do not ooze back into their old ways of hoarding information, not sharing and not doing long-term strategic intelligence analysis."
The law called for the creation of an "information sharing environment" among five often atomized communities-homeland security, law enforcement, foreign affairs, defense and intelligence. But GAO recently reported that information sharing remains on its list of high-risk federal efforts. More than six years after the law's enactment, the report continued, "there is not a clear definition of what the ISE is intended to achieve and include. Agencies and program managers still lack a 'roadmap' for defining the 'end state vision' of sharing."
For the FBI, the quest for an integrated approach involves a heightened focus on intelligence. FBI Director Robert Mueller said in 2009 Senate testimony that "we must understand the threat, continue to integrate our intelligence and law enforcement capabilities in every FBI operational program, and expand our contribution to the intelligence community knowledge base."
Yet Rowley is concerned that her former employer has "erased the prior guidelines" imposed on the FBI in the late 1970s after congressional investigations uncovered serious violations of privacy by bureau operatives.
"Those guidelines played a gatekeeper role because you can't infiltrate every group," she says. There's now a risk of "flooding the database with nonrelevant information," which was one of the problems that led the bureau to miss clues in the run-up to 9/11, she says.
A possible weak link is the Homeland Security Department. Ervin points out that there is valuable information whenever airport screeners "pick up a suspicious item or a method by someone casing an airport, or the Border Patrol discovers a novel way to sneak in an alien, or the U.S. Coast Guard spots something suspicious in the maritime sector-all are pieces of intelligence. Whether these are collated and synthesized and communicated for patterns and trends and shared with the wider intelligence community is still a question," he says.
Hayden told the management forum that the CIA was denied access to the "mountains of information that reside in DHS" and that this was a "policy and legal and political culture issue."
Screening for Bombs
In July, USA Today published a report based on sensitive Homeland Security documents indicating there had been 25,000 breaches of screening at airports since November 2001. TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball responded that the breaches made up only a small fraction of the air travelers who moved through U.S. airports during the decade, and that few posed a real danger.
TSA screeners "have a tough job," says AFGE's Gage. "They have to be friendly and polite even though they get assaulted, slapped and pushed by drunks. They don't even have arrest authority like police do. But no one can say airport security isn't 100 percent better now than it was when low-paid contractors were doing most of it," he says. "A lot of criticisms of TSA come from people who don't like government."
The Aspen Institute's Ervin despairs of ongoing reports about TSA problems from inspectors general, GAO, Congress and the media. "Even one mistake can be catastrophically fatal," he says. "The answer is we need better paid and better trained screeners, but it's mind-numbing work, so there is a physical and psychological limit to what they can do" without tools such as advanced imaging technology, which has been deployed only in recent years and with continuing tensions over passenger privacy.
One of the frustrations with TSA, Ervin adds, is a "troubling tendency to be one step behind the terrorists." He cited the example of British terrorist Richard Reid, the now-imprisoned "shoe bomber," whose thwarted 2001 effort to light a bomb aboard a U.S-bound plane prompted a TSA requirement that passengers undergoing screening remove their shoes. Similarly, TSA tightened (and then softened) in 2006 its rules on passengers carrying liquids, aerosols and gels after a terrorist plot using such items was foiled. The trick, Ervin says, "is to anticipate the next attack."
Another underaddressed vulnerability is mass transit, Ervin says, noting attacks on subway and bus systems in Madrid, London and Moscow-and one foiled in New York City. "Bin Laden had mass transit on his radar," he says, and, as the American Public Transportation Association points out, the United States since 9/11 has spent nearly $9 per passenger on aviation travel but only 4 cents protecting ground transit.
The problem is that techniques such as hiring more police and bomb-sniffing dogs in public systems is expensive, and state and local governments are currently strapped. "It ought to be a federal investment," Ervin says. "There is no such thing as a terror attack on America-an attack on America has to happen someplace specific."
Management Challenges The creation of DHS under the 2002 Homeland Security Act was the government's most ambitious reorganization effort in half a century. The road to consolidating almost two dozen agencies and what grew to 230,000 employees in an atmosphere of panic was bound to contain some bumps.
The notion that building DHS involved mashing together 22 separate agencies "is a bit of a myth," former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the management forum. "Some of these are very small things like the Office of Privacy . . . There are really eight major operating arms." He also said the organization that was toughest to bring in was the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "It had been independent," Chertoff noted, and "the then-leadership of FEMA bitterly resisted the idea of being integrated."
The days of shoveling out money at FEMA have ended. "Since 2003, state and local recipients of federal first responder grants have spent most of their grants for equipment such as communications equipment and armored trucks that are often called 'toys for boys,' " says William Jenkins, a GAO specialist in emergency preparedness. "But with tight local budgets and declining grant dollars, they are likely to need to spend an increasing proportion of their grant dollars to maintain what they've already bought."
GAO analysts have pressed Homeland Security to improve management functions.
"DHS has a relatively thin layer at the department level, with most of the managers, staff and resources in its component agencies," says David Maurer, a specialist in DHS management issues at GAO. "The department faces challenges collecting and comparing basic information. For example, the department can't compare salaries and expenses agencywide in a consistent, integrated way."
One major problem is that Congress never reorganized its oversight functions to reflect the new entity. Homeland Security officials must answer to more than 108 congressional committees and subcommittees, according to a November 2010 study by the Heritage Foundation. "Agencies get conflicting guidance from committees," says James Jay Carafano, a homeland security expert at Heritage. "It adds to the strategic confusion, like a kid with 27 parents telling them what time to come home from the prom."
Another challenge is the way so many Homeland Security components are spread around Washington, a state of affairs that prompted plans finalized in 2009 to consolidate more than 14,000 headquarters employees at the Southeast Washington campus of St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital. "The leadership wants the move to knit the department together," says GAO's Maurer. "This may help, but DHS needs to do a lot more. Its leadership recognizes this and is slowing the original plans for completing the move to free up resources for other department priorities."
Officials all across government took notice this spring when, after American agents pored through documents found in the Pakistan hide-out of Osama bin Laden, evidence showed al Qaeda planning new attacks inside the United States.
Homeland Security employees know as well as anyone how much there still is to accomplish.
Airport screening stations, for example, "could look different in five to 10 years, says Cathy Berrick, who manages GAO's reports on homeland security. "You may not see the standard checkpoint you see today."
New technologies and processes, she adds, "could result in a different screening experience for travelers, such as an increased focus on passengers deemed high risk, increased focus on dangerous people versus dangerous items, and the screening process being spread out versus most of it occurring at the checkpoint."
Perhaps TSA will better anticipate unseen threats-news reports suggest, for example, that terrorist organizations are experimenting with bombs surgically implanted in the human body.
Mistakes may not come to light without a healthier environment for whistleblowers, says Rowley, who retired from the FBI in 2004 and later made an unsuccessful run for Congress. "Right now the internal mechanisms don't work, and you have inspectors general and whistleblowers being retaliated against or fired," she says.
Ervin says more work is needed in border security in the area of visa overstays. "We see [people] at entry and have their biographical and biometric data, but if we later find out they're a suspected terrorist, we don't know if they're still in the country," he says. He also recommends expanding the visa security officers who supplement State Department staff in select countries such as Yemen and Pakistan.
Realism will be in order. As Michael Leiter, who resigned in June as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said at a recent conference, "The world is an awfully big place, and, unfortunately, thanks to many movies . . . Americans imagine we have a lot more capability to zoom in on any geographic coordinates anywhere in the world and simply find an individual. If it were, my job would be a whole lot easier."