Nobody could have predicted the disaster that is Homeland Security

Amid the excitement over Dana Priest’s remarkable and continuing exploration of US intelligence operations and the massive confusion surrounding and informing them, I am reminded of a story from Government Executive magazine back in 2002 when George W. Bush and a Congress still flailing about in the aftermath of 911 created the Department of Homeland Security.

The story looked at similar attempts to combine existing, independent agencies into a larger whole, providing a historical perspective on the task, and providing considerable detail on the daunting mechanics of integrating a huge number of employees from formerly independent agencies into a functional whole.

When President Bush proposed a new Department of Homeland Security to protect Americans against 21st century terrorist threats, he declared it was the biggest federal reorganization since 1947, the year Harry Truman combined the armed services into the Defense Department. The president may regret the comparison. Before Truman’s effort had any effect on military coordination, it spawned the mother of all turf wars.

Not only did defense reorganization fail to end interservice rivalry, it did almost nothing to improve joint military operations. As recently as the 1983 invasion of Grenada – where the military simply divided up the island, giving half to the Army and half to the Marine Corps – the services still were reluctant to work together. It took the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act to strengthen the Joint Chiefs of Staff and improve cooperation.

If previous reorganizations are any guide, it will take years for the Department of Homeland Security to mature into a well-run agency. Historically, reorganizations have been long, costly struggles that only sometimes have produced better-run programs. At other times, they have made things worse.

I’m not fond of labeling stories as must-read, because usually you can get along fine without them, but this one really is. It predicts to a fine degree many of the issues that Priest documents in her series, and it provides a perspective that hasn’t been matched by anyone to date. As an instance, it has quite a bit to say about the future of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, under the Homeland Security umbrella.

The White House has made FEMA the lead agency to help state and local governments craft terrorism response plans. As a first step, it wants to funnel all first responder grant programs – $3.5 billion worth – through the agency. Centralizing the programs should help standardize the equipment and training the government provides, but it places a strain on FEMA, which lacks a large staff to dispense grants.

“I think it will be a tremendous challenge,” says James Lee Witt, who headed FEMA during the Clinton administration. “When you add so many grants, you’ll have to staff up and add financial management staff to review the applications.”

Amy Smithson, an expert on terrorism preparedness at the Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan international security research organization, worries that moving the grant programs will be another setback in the government’s effort to work with first responders. “This is the fourth time these programs will have been moved. They started at the Army, then they went to the [Justice Department’s] Office of Justice Programs, and now they’re going to FEMA, and then FEMA will go to the Homeland Security Department. That speaks for itself,” she says.

And we know what happened with FEMA under the guidance of Michael “”Heckuva job, Brownie” Brown.

When you look at the initial fantastic scale of the project, and then consider what Priest says about the metastasis of not just Homeland Security but all of the intelligence agencies that remain independent, it’s easy enough to understand how and why the national security apparatus has become so massive, invasive and uncoordinated.

In scale and scope, there is no real precedent for the creation of the Homeland Security Department. The department will absorb parts of 22 agencies with between 170,000 and 200,000 employees, depending on the final size of the Transportation Security Administration. Its dimensions are staggering. The department will inherit employees represented by 17 different labor unions. It will absorb 15 agencies with pay systems that differ from the standard civil service system, and 10 agencies that follow their own custom hiring methods. Dozens of information technology systems will have to be linked together in some way, a task that didn’t exist in the reorganizations of 1947 or 1977. And since the bulk of homeland security work is done far from Washington, reorganization can’t be an inside-the-Beltway exercise that ignores the needs of hundreds of field offices, or state and local officials.

Dana Priest’s work validates pretty much everything that GovExec’s Jason Peckenpaugh wrote eight years ago. And bleak as his assessment was, he may actually have understated the potential outcome. In any event, it’s an excellently reported and written story, and it has held its value extraordinarily well eight years on.

Go read it, and then take a look at this story, published last week, from G.W. Schulz at the Center for Investigative Reporting.

More than 100 committees and subcommittees in Congress today exercise jurisdiction over DHS, the nation’s newest sprawling bureaucracy, and lawmakers are reluctant to give up any political turf they may have as a result, even if it could lead to clearer and more efficient direction for the department.

Elevated Risk in recent months has described the annual homeland security appropriations bill as the latest home for tens of millions of dollars in unregulated earmarks policymakers secure for their constituents back home. Legislators are apparently just as eager to make certain those same constituents see them on C-SPAN leading hearings on the nation’s security.

The story includes the organizational chart from hell, which attempts to show all the Congressional committees and subcommittees that have a finger in this massive pie.

[Homeland Security] officials attended nearly 400 hearings over a recent two-year period and provided more than 5,000 briefings to congressional staffers and their bosses.

Our colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity last year published a lengthy story on the problem reporting that congressional leaders caved to pressure from powerful committee chairs seeking to maintain fiefdoms that gave them a say in as much about federal government policy and spending as possible.

By comparison, CPI found, the similarly sized Department of Veterans Affairs testified at half the number of hearings in front of just two committees and gave around 400 briefings during the same time frame.

So the massive clusterfuck described by Dana Priest has been predicted and quietly documented for years now, in commendable, if far less universal in scope, fashion by a number of sources. All of whom were ignored.

Along with the GovExec story, you really, really have to take a look at that chart.

And that’s today’s expedition through the looking glass.

6 thoughts on “Nobody could have predicted the disaster that is Homeland Security”

  1. Yeah, it’s a similar vibe from the war development (a comment I was considering for your other post, probably more relevant there). Everyone knows that War is Hell. When people contemplate engaging in one, the gravity of the decision is somehow supposed to convey the seriousness of the individual making it (or, in the case of all those fuckup journalists, the individual deciding to bravely condone it). I don’t like jumping on the wagon and mocking what makes a serious person, but I think that had a lot to do with it. People felt that entertaining such high stakes validated themselves and their times. As much as bloodlust, I think it’s always been that way–wars quickly become important. I mean, that’s one reason every modern American civics project for the last forty years has been a war on something (and Christ, but that’s fucking distasteful).

    Afterwards, when things predictably go to shit, then the horrible nature of war is an excuse. “War is hell,” quote the political sages. And never mind the people who thought that made it a bad idea in the first place.

    Bureaucracy’s harder. That’s hell too, but some amount can be useful. Centralizing this thing as well as spreading its scope, I think that was largely a matter of institutional self-importance too.

    1. Yeah, gutsy talk abounded. The Friedman Syndrome: “Hulk Smash!” And the Weisberg Syndrome: “Yes, I was wrong, but I was wrong based on logic, whereas the people who were right were just guessing, and are therefore inferior.” And who was it who said “Every now and then we just have to pick up some crappy little country and throw it against a wall.”? Not anyone who did the heavy lifting, I’m sure.

  2. It was a pleasure finding this, thanks for meeting my needs here.

  3. Nobody could have predicted the disaster that would become Homeland Security? Well, certainly not George W. Bush, who urged its creation. How is that for a GOP about-face: one of their own created a new government bureaucracy and it is wasting millions every week.

    1. Hi, James. Thanks for stopping by. Republicans also created the hideously expensive and pharmaceutical industry-friendly Medicare prescription drug benefit, so their fondness for bank-breaking projects isn’t limited to this one. Homeland Security, though, is an example of both a lot of post-911 panic and Republicans and Democrats in Congress going into a feeding frenzy at the thought of all that new money flowing through their hands. The Bush administration was initially opposed to the idea, but Congress generated enough support for it that the administration caved.

      In effect, the whole thing was conceived as a massive new pork barrel opportunity.

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