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Behind America’s Front Lines: Organizing to Protect the Homeland


How well America protects its homeland against terrorist attack will depend in large measure on how its government is organized to meet the threat. The challenge is profound. Few government activities are at once so crucial and so difficult to manage. Responsibility for homeland security is widely dispersed, not only within the federal government but also among state and local authorities and the private sector.

Just counting the federal departments, agencies, and offices involved in homeland security is problematic. According to the Office of Management and Budget, nearly 70 agencies—excluding the defense and state departments and the intelligence community—spend money on counterterrorist activities. One organizational chart of federal agencies involved in homeland security depicts 130 separate boxes. Even by more discriminating accounting standards, anywhere between 40 and 50 agencies are involved in homeland security.

This diffusion of responsibility is inherent in the problem these agencies seek to tackle. Homeland security is, by its very nature, a highly decentralized activity. Ultimately, it depends on good decisions by the hundreds of thousands of border guards, immigration officers, customs agents, doctors, nurses, firefighters, and police officers who guard America’s frontlines. Managing, coordinating, leading, and mobilizing these people so that their individual decisions add up to a nation more secure, better prepared, and more responsive to the terrorist threat—that is the organizational challenge of homeland security.

Consolidation or Coordination?

The federal government has two ways to go about the job. One is to consolidate homeland security-related governmental units within a lead agency—either an existing one or a new one. The other focuses on interagency (and intergovernmental) coordination, with a single White House-based entity tasked with bringing together all the agencies responsible for different aspects of homeland security.

The lead agency approach has clear advantages. Assigning responsibility to a single agency provides a focal point in a diffuse landscape of interests and capabilities, thereby enhancing accountability. Merging critical functions dealing with frontier security, infrastructure protection, and emergency response into distinct directorates within a lead agency should ease communications and make it easier to implement agreed policy. And empowering the new entity with direct budgetary authority and political responsibility should make it a major player in the overall homeland security effort.



I.M. Destler

Professor and director of the Program on International Security and Economic Policy at the School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland.

But the problems of this approach outweigh the benefits. The homeland security mission involves, by definition, many more entities than can be brought under a single roof. Left outside will necessarily be the most important agencies—the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice and the FBI, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the CIA and other parts of the intelligence community. And a Department of Homeland Security cannot, by definition, include state and local government authorities.

So even if a consolidated agency is created, effective coordination will still be essential. But assigning that function to the head of a new homeland security entity, even if that official were given cabinet rank, would be a mistake. A cabinet secretary with direct authority for some (but not most) relevant homeland security activity would likely be perceived as partial toward the functions she or he supervised and would likely be resisted by cabinet officials with major authorities of their own (the attorney general, for example, or the secretary of health and human services), just as the secretary of state—repeatedly called on to exercise government-wide foreign affairs leadership—comes up against the Department of Defense and the intelligence community.

Coordination is never easy, but it tends to work better when the leader is perceived as an honest broker and can evoke the authority of the White House. If the coordinator is seen as a competitor, other agencies whose cooperation is crucial are likely to balk at following its lead, and bureaucratic fights over turf become pervasive.

Building on Bush Administration Reforms

An alternative, drawing on parallel experience in the national security and economic policy areas, is to establish a focal point for coordination in the Executive Office of the President. That is the approach adopted by the Bush administration. As spelled out in the president’s executive order, the main coordinating body is the new Homeland Security Council (HSC), supported by a new Office of Homeland Security (OHS) under the direction of Governor Tom Ridge. The HSC is composed of the president; vice president; attorney general; secretaries of treasury, defense, health and human services, and transportation; and the directors of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI, the CIA, and the OHS. The council, “responsible for advising and assisting the President with respect to all aspects of homeland security,” is “the mechanism for ensuring coordination of homeland security-related activities of executive departments and agencies and effective development and implementation of homeland security policies.” Since its establishment, it has met as often as twice a week, with the president in attendance.

This organizational structure puts Ridge in a strong position and gives him important levers of power within the executive branch that, if employed wisely, can help overcome many of the organizational difficulties inherent in the task—including especially the wide dispersal of authority and capabilities that need to be brought together. By chairing all interagency committees, Ridge and his office have the power to set the agenda, convene meetings, and forge consensus. But wielding that power effectively requires subtlety on Ridge’s part. He needs to gain the cooperation of the many cabinet secretaries and agency directors who ultimately will have responsibility for taking the actions that make our homeland safe. Neither Ridge nor anyone on his staff has the authority to tell others what to do—that must come from the acquiescence, if not support, of Ridge’s peers themselves.

Ridge’s power must be nurtured and protected or it will be ephemeral. Battles inevitably loom with cabinet colleagues. He must be careful about which battles he chooses to fight—and he must win most of them, particularly during his first year.

The early returns are not uniformly encouraging. While Ridge worked hard with others to create a national terrorist alert system, the ultimate authority for determining alert levels was vested in the attorney general, even though Ridge was arguably better placed to do so. And whereas Ridge championed the establishment of a new, independent border agency through the consolidation of the Coast Guard, Customs Service, Border Patrol, and Agricultural Quarantine Inspection Agency (see box), he was ultimately forced to join a consensus in favor of something far less. If such defeats—real and perceived—become a pattern, Ridge will lose credibility. Over time, few will defer to him, and fewer still are likely to follow his lead.

Statutory and Budgetary Authority

Ridge’s inability or unwillingness to fight and win some of the tough organizational battles has begun to affect his stature in Washington. The press focuses more on his defeats than on his victories. Pundits are concerned about the slow pace of putting in place a visible homeland security structure and strategy. And politicians both fret about Ridge’s refusal to testify on Capitol Hill and worry about his lack of formal authority within the executive branch.

To answer his critics and enhance his overall authority, Ridge’s position should be established in law rather than by executive order as it is now. His job by its nature is far more operational and publicly involved than is the norm for those holding White House-based advisory positions (like the national security adviser and national economic adviser). He therefore needs to work regularly with Congress and to use congressional hearings as a platform for national leadership in the war against terror. Someone needs to be accountable to Congress for the executive branch’s management of homeland security—and Ridge is that person.

Therefore, the president should seek, and Congress should enact, a bill establishing the Homeland Security Council and the Office of Homeland Security in the Executive Office of the President. The bill, which should allow for maximum operating flexibility, should establish Ridge’s job as a confirmable position, with rank and salary at the level of the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Congress should also grant Ridge’s office special budgetary authority to help it pull together a comprehensive, integrated homeland security budget and to give Ridge some degree of authority over agency budgets. To tie the homeland security budget effort to the presidential budget process run by OMB, Congress should make the chief OHS budget person the OMB associate director responsible for homeland security.

Improving control and authority over the executive branch’s budget process is only half the job. Congressional procedures must also be reformed. Though Ridge worked hard to present a unified homeland security budget to Capitol Hill last February, once it arrived it was quickly disaggregated and its components distributed among multiple appropriations subcommittees. There they will be weighed not in relation to overall homeland security needs, but within such jurisdictions as Commerce, Justice, and State; Defense; and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. What the executive branch has laboriously pulled together, Congress will quickly pull apart. The obvious remedy, difficult though it may be to implement, is to establish new appropriations subcommittees on homeland security in both houses. If that proves too large a reform to swallow, a second-best alternative would be for the appropriations committees as a whole to take up and pass the integrated homeland security budget.

Looking Ahead

Leading the homeland to greater security against terrorism is a daunting challenge. Any new leader and organization would need simultaneously to act boldly to establish their authority and to feel their way as they learn what works and what does not. It is best to conceive of this task not as one of organizational centralization and consolidation, but rather one of cross-governmental coordination, mobilization, and leadership, with priority given to establishing collaborative, positive-sum personal relationships at senior levels.

If the task is undertaken in this manner, there is room for cautious optimism as to its achievement. The keys to success are two. Governor Ridge must convince his cabinet colleagues that their ability to get things done depends crucially on their working together within the coordinated process Ridge runs. And the president must back Ridge fully in that effort. In the end, Ridge’s power and authority—and the president’s homeland security organization—depend on the willingness of all the other important players to work with rather than against the president’s point person for homeland security. As the struggle over border agency consolidation in early 2002 demonstrated, that is easier said than done. But without it, an integrated approach to homeland security will remain beyond reach.


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