Less than one month after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, President George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and in that one decision, enacted the most sweeping rearrangement of the federal bureaucracy seen since the creation of the CIA, the National Security Council and the modern-day Department of Defense back in 1947. Looking back from the vantage point of 16 years of elapsed time, was the creation of DHS a net positive for the safety and security of the United States of America?
The answer is no. Yes, we are safer today, but DHS does not deserve the credit.
First, let us examine the positive outcomes that resulted from the creation of DHS. First, a sprawling bureaucracy spread across 22 agencies was consolidated into one……sprawling bureaucracy. Yes, agencies as diverse as the Coast Guard, the U.S. Secret Service, the Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization, and the Transportation Security Administration were brought under the umbrella of DHS, and its secretary, to coordinate “homeland security” efforts. I suppose that is a good thing, assuming the secretary can effectively manage such a sweeping bureaucracy and make it work in an efficient manner.
The creation of DHS also led to the creation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) in 2004, which is a system of running emergency scenes from as small as a single-car motor-vehicle crash to a large-scale terrorist attack. NIMS is used throughout the United States — by fire departments especially — to run their emergency scenes, and is an unqualified success. It has been highly successful in facilitating emergency management, and allows for a rapid scaling up of response without a commensurate scaling up of command chaos.
And that is about all I have for the successes. Seriously. Just think about it and answer the following question to yourself: which agencies are the most critical in protecting America? My answers would be the U.S. military, the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, local law enforcement, and local first responders throughout the country as the first line of defense and response.
Yes, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, FEMA, and Transportation Security Administration play an important role (all under DHS). But they did that before the creation of DHS’ sprawling bureaucracy, as well. They did not need DHS over top of them to do their jobs successfully.
That is the crux of this critique. The creation of DHS was a bureaucratic exercise. It was an attempt to superimpose a layer of bureaucracy over a disparate group of agencies already performing their missions in a more streamlined fashion. After DHS was created, they continued to do their jobs, in spite of the extra top-heavy structure placed over their heads. DHS did not make them better at their job in any discernible way.
One must also point out the level of job dissatisfaction present within DHS amongst its employees, and the accusations of waste and fraud leveled at it over the last 16 years. First, the former. According to a 2005 Office of Personnel Management (OPM) survey of federal employees in all 36 federal agencies, covering job satisfaction and agency leadership, DHS was last or near the bottom in every single category. To this author, that smacks of failed leadership and a lack of purpose felt amongst the workforce.
When it comes to waste, fraud, and ineffectiveness, DHS has also come away with failing grades. In 2008, the U.S. Congress estimated that the department had wasted roughly $15 billion in failed contracts, according to a Washington Post report. Furthermore, a 2015 inspection of IT infrastructure found, according to The Register, that DHS was operating a staggering 100-plus computer systems, a number of which were running out-of-date security protocols.
Wasn’t DHS created to avoid just these types of issues? And we have not even waded into the ineffectiveness of its “fusion centers,” and accusations against them of civil liberties violations.
This author is forced to conclude that while the creation of DHS was born out of the feeling of insecurity and “need to do something” that followed 9/11/2001, it has failed to live up to expectations that it would be the be-all and end-all of American “homeland” security. After all, the agencies that were prosecuting that mission prior to DHS’ creation — and admittedly, spectacularly failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks — continued to prosecute it following the rise of DHS.
The reforms to intelligence sharing, inter-agency cooperation and communication, and the re-focusing of mission that followed 9/11 has likely done much more to improve the effectiveness of America’s security establishment than did the creation of DHS.
Featured image of George W. Bush signing the Homeland Security Appropriations Act courtesy of Wikipedia.