How NOT to Reorganize for Homeland Security

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

November 7, 2001

To win the war against terrorism at home, President Bush has brought former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to Washington to head a new Office of Homeland Security. Leaders of Congress are eager to help. All too aware of how weak drug or energy “czars” have proved in the past, many members want to hand Ridge broad new powers for the bureaucratic battles ahead.

There is only one problem: Their solution cannot work and may make the problem worse.

The fundamental precept behind nearly all congressional proposals for organizing homeland security is centralization: bringing functions now scattered across 40-plus organizations under a common roof. Thus, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) proposes to “create a robust, Cabinet-level agency, led by a strong director, that has the clout and resources to make the homeland security mission work.”

As his model, Lieberman takes the Hart-Rudman commission, which earlier this year proposed the creation of a national homeland security agency that would combine the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Customs Service, Border Patrol and Coast Guard.

Unfortunately, such proposals are notable less for what they include than for what agencies they must, by their nature, exclude. The FBI would necessarily remain in the Justice Department (and resistant to its authority). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indispensable to combating bioterrorism, would remain (also loosely) within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Perhaps most important, the intelligence arms of domestic law enforcement and the vast resources of the CIA and the National Security Agency could not possibly be brought under the direct authority of any Cabinet-level homeland security official. The absolutely critical information about who and what requires priority border attention will have to come from outside any conceivable homeland security agency.

The intelligence connection reflects a broader reality—the need for any domestically oriented security office to coordinate with international policy agencies under the aegis of the National Security Council. In the other organizational direction, it has to link up effectively with police, health, rescue and other units under the authority of governors and mayors throughout the land. Inevitably, organizational consolidation leaves most of the problem unaddressed.

Rather than seeking direct authority over homeland security activities, Ridge must find ways to catalyze cooperation across agency lines, engaging officials he cannot possibly command.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, for example, is an absolutely critical player, with oversight over the FBI, Immigration and Naturalization Service and law enforcement generally. Ridge cannot direct Ashcroft; rather, he must ensure that he and Ashcroft work together in a constructive manner.

That task will fall to the Homeland Security Council (HSC), a new body, modeled on the NSC, designed to assist the president by coordinating all executive-level homeland security-related activities. Ridge’s challenge is to manage the HSC process in ways that encourage his senior colleagues, the attorney general above all, to coordinate their fight against terrorism under its aegis.

Through the HSC, Ridge can help Ashcroft buttress the capacity of the FBI and the INS to take timely preventive action, or assist Secretary Thompson to get the CDC to raise the priority given to countering a germ weapons attack. And there are models on which Ridge can draw. Robert Rubin used President Clinton’s new National Economic Council to engage key economic and trade policymakers and help them forge unified policies; Brent Scowcroft employed the NSC to connect strong-willed secretaries of state to presidential purposes in the Ford and the first Bush administrations.

In the context of this primary role of coordination and mobilization, Congress may indeed be able to offer Ridge some help. It could make the HSC a statutory entity and help him establish a role in budget oversight—in setting priorities and vetoing agency submissions.

And it could, as a useful addition to Ridge’s coordinating role, consider consolidating in one agency the Customs Service, Border Patrol, Coast Guard and (if federalized) the airport security function. But these functions should not be part of Ridge’s office or under his direct authority. Indeed, he needs to be freed from things that will drain his time and make him a competitor to senior colleagues, so that he can act effectively as coordinator and leader.