The dirty little secret about the hastily and secretly composed Homeland Security Department proposal is that it is almost certainly doomed to fail. The sad truth is that it's all but a done deal.
Stampeded by fear of what it perceives to be the public's impatience for action-any action-to forestall repetition of the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress has been clamoring for a new Cabinet-level homeland security department for months. The Bush administration caught the fever when revelations about missed signals before 9/11 began threatening its nearly unassailable post-9/11 popularity. Thus, as with the creation of the Transportation Security Administration in November, the Hill and the White House are sure to quickly close ranks around an insufficient plan. The TSA has been begging for more money and risks missing its Dec. 31 deadline for screening all luggage destined for commercial airliners.
The latest post-9/11 reshuffling of government's organizational chart is just sleight of hand. The administration hopes to cause a huge commotion around the edges to distract a worried public from noticing the hole at the core of its domestic response to terrorism. For what this grand plan glaringly and startlingly lacks is a carefully crafted strategy, with goals and measures for success. No one in this administration has adequately or comprehensively defined what "homeland security" is going to mean in this country. Nor are there signs in this plan that the drafters soberly weighed the best means for achieving it.
Instead, months apparently were spent studying prescient reports of yore about our terrorism vulnerabilities only to ignore their most important messages. Take for example, the January 2001 report of the bipartisan Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, headed by former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman. Its first and most important recommendation is that the president develop a comprehensive strategy to prevent, protect against and, if all else fails, respond to attacks on the homeland. Only later does it propose a reorganization, one nowhere near the scale of what's on the table today.
Taking account of myriad reports about the catastrophic management effects of the dual missions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service-border control and enforcement vs. immigration facilitation-Hart-Rudman recommends splitting off the Border Patrol and putting it in a new homeland security agency. But the Bush administration ignores INS' duality and fails to muster the political courage to champion a new, more realistic policy to heal our national ambivalence about immigration. Instead, the president dumps the INS, well-documented problems and all, into a massive and unwieldy new department. This after first ordering an administrative reorganization of the agency in November and then signing on to a House-passed bill splitting it in two. Apparently it's reorganization über alles for Mr. Bush and company.
The administration similarly punts on the Customs Service, so afflicted by its competing missions-to speed people and goods in and out of the country while at the same time aggressively inspecting them for contraband-that the common plaint of its inspectors is, "Just tell me what you want me to do!" Just 7,200 Customs inspectors nationwide screen more than 11 million trucks, 5 million cargo containers, 2 million rail cars, 800,000 commercial aircraft and hundreds of thousands of private aircraft, vessels, vehicles and passengers entering the United States every year. And the volume of trade is expected to double by 2020.
The president apparently believes that simply focusing those inspectors more closely on homeland security will clear up the mission conflict-largely in favor of enforcement, one presumes-and the resource problem. The "how" isn't exactly clear, especially since the new department is to be created without increasing staffing or funding beyond that currently allotted to its constituent agencies: 170,000 employees and $37 billion, not even as many or as much as the Veterans Affairs Department. Lauded as the first "corporate" presidency, the Bush team no doubt will find a Superman or -woman to name as Homeland Security Secretary and hold accountable for solving its pesky management problems on the cheap.
Those worriers on the Hart-Rudman Commission sought to forestall just such an outcome: "Steps must also be taken to strengthen these three organizations themselves," the commissioners wrote, referring to Customs, the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard. Along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, those three formed the core of the new agency the commission proposed. All three are "on the verge of being overwhelmed by the mismatch between their growing duties and their mostly static resources," the commission found.
Unlike Customs and INS, the Coast Guard distinguishes itself by dint of amazing efficiency at juggling a set of widely disparate missions-law enforcement, maritime safety, marine environmental protection and national security-while its resources have stagnated. Only three fleets of ships in the world are older than the Coast Guard's; its staff isn't much larger than it was in 1967. Government Executive's Federal Performance Project gave the Coast Guard an A for management ability in 2001, in contrast to Customs' C in 1999 and the INS's D this year and C- in 1999.
But even the can-do Coasties have begun crying "uncle" recently, courageously telling politicians they no longer can take on new missions without reducing performance in the old ones. While the Coast Guard arguably is one of the best-suited components for a new homeland security organization, moving it there without attending at once to its resource shortages, as the Bush plan does, is sheer folly.
FEMA, too, is a logical player on any homeland security team. It won a high B from the performance project in 1999 and has been unceasingly lauded for its complete management makeover under the leadership of Clinton-era Administrator James Lee Witt. The Hart-Rudman Commission envisioned FEMA as the homeland security team leader, however, while the Bush plan assigns it lesser "central component" status. That's a shame because the real work of responding to attacks, and in many cases of preventing them, falls not on federal agencies, but on state and local government employees. Respecting, supporting, emboldening and assisting those "first-responders" has become FEMA's forte.
At least the Bush plan notes this and pledges to continue FEMA's practices. Nevertheless, it's hard to see how a FEMA-like focus on devolution and public-private cooperation possibly could come to characterize what will become government's third-largest entity if Congress assents.
Despite its size and intimidating sweep of authority, the new department glaringly omits some agencies and curiously includes others or assigns them puzzling responsibilities. For example, as a recent letter writer to Government Executive notes, for 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has responded to hazardous materials and oil spill incidents through its 200 on-scene coordinators. Coordinators were on the ground in New York and Washington handling the attack sites on Sept. 11 and in Florida when anthrax appeared there. Hopefully the department will take advantage of EPA's expertise even though it's not included.
And let's pray relations are good between the Homeland Security Department's Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Countermeasures division and the Public Health Service and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which remain in the Health and Human Services Department. The Agriculture Department was tapped to donate its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to the new department. With all due respect to the inspection abilities of APHIS' eager beagles, why not the Food Safety and Inspection Service or the Food and Drug Administration?
And why should we expect those responsible for analyzing information at the new department-presumably an amalgam of employees currently at Customs, INS, the Coast Guard and within the cybersecurity agencies slated for absorption-will be better able to sort information than the intelligence agencies currently on the job? It takes many years to groom intelligence analysts for specific areas of inquiry and it's not clear they can easily or quickly be shifted to new ones. Odd, too, that the FBI, whose foibles apparently helped goose the new department into being, remains apart and thereby potentially as aloof as ever.
What's particularly galling about the absence of a strong, broad and deep strategic rationale for the new department is that there could have been one. The agencies that have handled all the missions now planned for the Department of Homeland Security for years have learned plenty doing it. That expertise was there for the asking. In addition, the administration could have drawn advice and counsel from the ranks of former leaders, academics, think tanks and companies that have wrestled for years with the problems of homeland security and government organization.
Consulting a number of them on the eve of George W. Bush's ascendancy for our "Memo to the President" in January 2001 provoked surprising unanimity on one priority: reorganization. From the liberal Brookings Institution to the conservative Heritage Foundation, thoughtful commentators agreed that Bush ought to use the bully pulpit to mount a campaign to revisit and revise decades-old departments and agencies created based on the needs, resources and demographics of times gone by. But what they envisioned was a re-examination of the federal government's role, a careful sorting of priorities and reordering of functions, and the shaping of new entities built for 21st century performance.
The proposed Department of Homeland Security meets none of those criteria. Instead, like the Transportation Security Administration before it, it smacks of cynicism about Americans' ability to distinguish progress from mere motion. And like the TSA, it is being set up to fail.