Congress Is Left With the Hard Task of Shaping a Homeland Security Department That Works

I.M. Destler and
I.M. Destler Professor and director of the Program on International Security and Economic Policy at the School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland.
Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

June 23, 2002

Last week, the Bush administration rushed its ambitious proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security to Congress. Now lawmakers face the daunting task of filling in the critical details of what the president has called “the most extensive reorganization of the federal government since the 1940s”—and of doing so even before the intelligence committees have completed their investigation of what went wrong before Sept. 11.

The administration did the easy work. It proposed pulling together 169,000 government officials currently dispersed among 22 offices in eight Cabinet departments, but it did not come up with a unifying security strategy that would help that mass of people work together as a unit. And although it did include a new intelligence office that would synthesize information from the CIA and FBI to provide an integrated analysis of terrorist threats, it would leave those agencies essentially unchanged.

Clearly, the administration was well aware that attempts to reform these politically powerful agencies would be bruising. But it is hard to imagine how we do better next time if those who bear major responsibility for the pre-Sept. 11 intelligence lapses are a priori excluded from significant government reform efforts.

The concept for the new department, announced June 6 by the president, was born of frustration with previous attempts to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts. But its timing also revealed an administration concerned with regaining control of the homeland-security agenda and the political upper hand.

Though there have been hints of change since mid-April, the basic administration line before the president’s announcement was that the problem of coordinating governmentwide homeland security activities had been addressed through the creation last October of the Office of Homeland Security headed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

Skeptics argued from the start that Ridge lacked the authority to force change on an entrenched bureaucracy. The chorus of critics grew when the governor failed to win interagency approval of his plan to consolidate the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Customs Service, the Coast Guard and other agencies charged with overseeing people and goods crossing U.S. borders.

That appearance of weakness undercut the president’s policy and gave the initiative to skeptics in the press and to the opposition party, including potential presidential aspirant Sen. Joseph Lieberman, whose bill to create a Homeland Security Department was gaining support.

When reports surfaced that FBI leaders had failed to act aggressively on agents’ suspicions about flight-school students, and that the FBI and CIA missed crucial clues because they did not share enough information, the president decided to act. The result is a new organizational ballgame.

The new department would have four primary tasks: controlling our borders, responding to terror-driven emergencies, developing technologies to detect weapons of mass destruction and protect citizens against their use, and analyzing intelligence and law enforcement information to assess terrorist threats on a daily basis.

If managed effectively, the proposed department could ameliorate some important homeland-security problems. A “common face” at the border, to use Ridge’s expression, has seemed an obvious need to many analysts. And the proposed threat-analysis unit could play a very useful role if it is allowed to routinely see the raw data collected by the nation’s many intelligence and law enforcement agencies, rather than just summaries prepared by those agencies.

The administration says the department’s analysts could ask for raw data, but that will not resolve the problem. Investigators may not know what to ask for—and analyses based only on partial data will necessarily be incomplete. The only way in which to “connect the dots” in the future is if analysts have access to all the dots in the first place.

Details like that will undoubtedly prove crucial to whether the new department succeeds. Reorganization may be necessary, but it is far from sufficient. Congress created the Department of Energy 25 years ago, and we still have no coherent energy policy.

It is up to Congress to give the president’s proposal the thorough scrubbing it lacked because the administration decided to develop it in secret. Because the plan was concocted by a few of the president’s top White House aides, the vast majority of officials with expertise in the subject—including Cabinet members—were unable to contribute their knowledge, much less offer constructive challenges that could have strengthened the departmental design. (Administration leaders were so worried about leaks, they conducted planning meetings in the White House bunker.)

The White House argues that excluding the “oxen to be gored” was the only way to get a serious plan to the president. Secrecy may have been politically and operationally convenient. But an obvious alternative would have been for Ridge and his agency counterparts to prepare clear organizational alternatives from which the president could choose. Cabinet secretaries standing to lose turf could have made their best arguments, but not been allowed to block an option from reaching the Oval Office.

The inevitable leaks might have been temporarily discomfiting, not disastrous. But the president would have had to hear his Cabinet members out, and then decide against at least some of them—something presidents typically don’t want to do.

So Congress is left with the job of doing what the administration did not—eliciting the views of those most in the know to determine the overall structure of a Department of Homeland Security and what should constitute its component parts. But the nation’s lawmakers are no more immune to politics than the administration. Already the urge is to get the job done well before campaigning for midterm elections starts early this fall. Indeed, there is an emerging consensus on Capitol Hill that it would be fitting to finish the job this Sept. 11, the first anniversary of the attacks.

That date may well be unrealistic, given how much work is left to be done and how many questions remain to be asked to ensure the department can achieve its goals. Are any critical agencies or functions missing from the president’s proposal?

The administration decided against including the National Guard in the new department, even though defense of our country is the Guard’s constitutional mission. Was that the right call?

And no consideration was apparently given to creating a full-blown domestic-intelligence and counterterrorism service—the FBI is, after all, a law enforcement agency whose main job is to investigate crimes, not stop them from happening.

Congress should also take a close look at the specifics of the president’s proposal. How, for example, are the now-separate border agencies to be integrated? Should they become as one, or remain distinct entities? Should responsibility for issuing visas remain with the State Department? Will the new secretary for homeland security task the intelligence community, FBI and other law enforcement entities to act on analysis done by the new department?

Another key question is how the department can be structured so that its divisions give priority to security tasks, but continue their other work. Can the department focus on security without the Coast Guard’s forswearing its valued rescue mission or the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s scaling back its responsiveness to natural disasters?

One serious problem with the government’s creating a massive new department is that terrorists are unlikely to sit still while our leaders immerse themselves in such a time-consuming task. There is a real danger that as the administration turns its efforts to getting the department up and running, the urgent need to continue development and implementation of its homeland-security strategy will get lower priority.

Tom Ridge has been designated to take the administration’s proposal to the Hill and the airwaves, though not, as yet, to head the proposed department once created. But what about his day job—which is to lead, coordinate and mobilize the U.S. government in the effort to secure our nation against attack? If Ridge is going to focus on the legislative campaign, perhaps another person should head the Office of Homeland Security.

Even assuming, as is likely, that Congress does pass a bill to the president’s liking, the job will be far from over. It will take many months for the newly merged agencies to work out the chains of command, and years for them to develop a fully integrated department. A new building will have to be designated or constructed. Databases must be aligned, and communication equipment made compatible. (This has been a problem even within agencies. A key weakness, pre-Sept. 11, was that the FBI’s computers didn’t talk well to one another and were unable to do the most basic of database searches using more than a single term.)

Beyond that, leaders of the department will need to figure out how to meld the diverse work cultures of the organizations that will suddenly find themselves thrown together: the military culture of the Coast Guard, the law enforcement culture of the Border Patrol and Secret Service, the customer orientation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the scientific predilections of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

Last but assuredly not least, the department will not solve the problem of coordinating Washington’s homeland-security functions. While tens of thousands of those who work on security issues would be brought into the department, many others will necessarily be left out. By the administration’s count, more than three-quarters of the agencies involved in homeland security would remain outside its proposed department.

The wide dispersal of homeland-security-related functions across the government was the reason Ridge’s office was created. With so much remaining outside the new department, it will be necessary not just to maintain the Office of Homeland Security as the president intends, but to strengthen it. The director should be given both statutory authority and control over the homeland-security budget.

One of Bush’s trickiest challenges will be working out the precise division of authority between his secretary of homeland security and his director of homeland security. The secretary needs to be the primary implementer of policy under his purview, and be tough in molding his department to meet this need. But the director will be key to ensuring homeland-security policy, strategy, budgets and operations are coordinated across the entire government.

The proposal for a new Cabinet department grew out of the failure of Tom Ridge’s office to forge a unified approach to making our country more secure. Somehow, the combination of man and structure proved inadequate to the task.

Exactly why remains unclear; it may simply be that he hadn’t yet learned how to exploit his close ties to the president.

In any case, the trick this time will be getting the departmental structure right the first time out. That is far more important than rushing the bill to the Oval Office in time for Sept. 11’s first anniversary.