Despite its progress, Homeland Security remains on GAO risk list

Report released for 9/11 anniversary describes eight years of improved counterterrorism but uneven management.

The Homeland Security Department has demonstrated progress in meeting its missions and has enjoyed a productive dialogue with the Government Accountability Office, auditors told a Senate panel on Wednesday. But what became the third largest federal entity when it consolidated 22 agencies in 2002 still must work to address weakness and gaps, GAO said in a new report released in time for the 10th anniversary of the nation's worst terrorist attack.

"Since it began operations in 2003, DHS has implemented key homeland security operations and achieved important goals and milestones in many areas to create and strengthen a foundation to reach its potential," said the report given as testimony by Comptroller General Gene Dodaro to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "As it continues to mature, however, more work remains for DHS to address gaps and weaknesses in its current operational and implementation efforts, and to strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of those efforts to achieve its full potential."

Dodaro cited enhancements in safety operations in Homeland Security's Secure Flight program and the use of border-entry biometrics to track suspected terrorists, and said the department had "laid a foundation" with good research on threats in such areas as ports, surface roads, maritime operations, rail and mass transit. "There is increased emphasis on cybersecurity, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a national response network," he said.

Other specific accomplishments mentioned include creating strategic frameworks for homeland security and natural disaster response and establishing the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team.

But GAO auditors, who have completed more than 1,000 reports and testimony on homeland security since 9/11, found that DHS' airport passenger and baggage screening is still not adequately detecting explosives and that there is still no effective tool in place to detect foreigners who overstay their visas.

Dodaro said DHS should "improve its management process" -- the core reason it was put on GAO's high-risk soon after its creation -- with special attention to acquisition contract oversight, developmental testing of technology and financial management.

Largely in agreement was the DHS witness, Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Jane Holl Lute. "We are a more capable nation, and a stronger nation," she said. "We are able to detect threats sooner, with better information, and make adjustments more quickly based on continuously updated intelligence. Today we know more about the people seeking to enter our country, the level of risk they pose, and what is needed to prevent potential threats from reaching our shores. Our borders are stronger, enhanced by more personnel, technology, and infrastructure, as well as stronger partnerships with states and cities, border communities, and our international partners to the north and south."

The Border Patrol, she said as an example, has more staff than at any time in its 87-year history, and civilian employees along the Southwest border have grown from 9,100 agents in 2001 to 17,700 today.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the committee, declared that DHS had "implemented most of its missions." The Sept. 11 attack "was probably preventable, and, if another group of terrorists attempted a similar attack today, it would be prevented," he said. "Ten years ago, we had no single official designated to marshal our resources against terrorism and natural disaster." He added that DHS survived a "market test of its coherence" after President Obama took office in that no one sub-agency, such as FEMA, has tried to break out of the department.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the panel's ranking member, asked rhetorically, "Are we safer or just safer from the tactics terrorists have already tried? The answer to both is yes," she added. But she also chided DHS for spending money on technologies that ultimately proved unworkable, citing the advanced spectroscopic portals aimed at detecting radiation in cargo, and the SBINet (the virtual border fence).

Senators expressed disappointment with DHS' efforts to stand up a science and technology capability comparable to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and said more leadership was needed in reaching out culturally to Muslim communities where the seeds of terrorist activity sometimes take root.

They also expressed concern about how DHS will fare in the new climate of budget austerity. "Programs have constituencies, but managers do not," Lieberman said, worrying that the budget ax would fall inappropriately on managers.

Lute responded that "no one at DHS separates management from operations -- it's all one department."

Lieberman noted that House Republicans had cut DHS' budget, including funds for the impending move to a consolidated headquarters on the site of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington.

That move, Lute said, is crucial for facilitating communication and reducing interagency transaction time.

Dodaro said that GAO would study the DHS business case for consolidating headquarters staff. He said he was confident DHS could weather the budget storm if it "makes the right investments in a cost-effective manner." Many of the "synergies" in the reorganization model chosen for DHS are "starting to gel," he added.

His colleague who manages GAO's homeland security audits, Cathy Berrick, told the panel the department should focus on making sure it has the necessary resources, implements oversight mechanisms to execute plans as they develop, and demonstrates progress in mission capability.

Lute said the department's priorities in improving management in key areas such as acquisitions include a focus on requirements, cost estimates that make a program sustainable, and a strengthened procurement workforce. "We've made identifying commonsense performance metrics a priority," she added.

But more progress is needed, Dodaro said, before GAO takes the department off its high-risk list.