DHS Still Dogged by Questions over Effectiveness
The Department of Homeland Security began to take shape five years ago this month. It involved the unprecedented merger of two dozen agencies and almost 200,000 federal employees. But now, more than $200 billion later, the department faces low morale, missed deadlines and continued questions about its effectiveness.
When President Bush signed legislation in 2002 creating the new department, everyone knew that such a massive reorganization would be tough. But there was also agreement after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that something had to be done.
"The Department of Homeland Security will focus the full resources of the American government on the safety of the American people," President Bush told a packed White House audience at the signing ceremony. He said that the department would close gaps between government agencies — gaps that had allowed the terrorists to succeed — and that the next attack would be met with a unified response.
Early Signs of Trouble
But the seeds of trouble for the new department were planted even before it was up and running — and some were evident that day at the White House.
For example, Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), was asked by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to attend the signing event, but she was reluctant to accept the invitation at first. Unions were upset that the president had been given broad new powers over working conditions at the new department. Kelley represented thousands of customs employees about to be absorbed into DHS.
Ridge wanted to patch things up, but Kelley was wary.
"It was clear to us that the actions they were going to take were not going to be in the best interests of employees, and that they really had not listened to the input of the employees and the unions," Kelley told NPR.
Kelley did end up attending the signing but says that after some initial attempts to work together, the relationship between the union and DHS soured.
High Turnover, Low Morale and Duct Tape
Indeed, high employee turnover and low morale continue to hound the department.
Last year, Homeland Security had the lowest job-satisfaction rating out of 36 government agencies. Department leaders say they're trying to improve the situation, with more training and opportunities for advancement.
But in the hectic early days, there were many concerns other than a happy workforce.
Just two weeks into the new department, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the government was raising its color-coded alert level to orange. That meant a high risk of attack.
But the announcement was confusing. People were told something terrible could happen, but that they should still travel and go shopping. Officials in the new department tried to help. They advised people to prepare for an attack by stocking up on, among other things, duct tape.
That piece of advice was quickly ridiculed, sending the new department's credibility into free fall.
Comedians, such as Lewis Black, had a field day.
"The only way duct tape protects you from a chemical attack is if you have enough that you can wrap it around yourself and suffocate!" Black joked.
Hitting the Ground Running
"We took a little bit of a public relations beating," Ridge said of the duct tape advisory.
Ridge, who left the department three years ago and is now a consultant, says some of the earliest setbacks were due to the sheer magnitude of the job — trying to create a huge new agency while also worrying about another attack.
"We had little time to begin the integration process that is necessary for any such aggregation of people and assets and technology," Ridge said. "If we had been in the private sector, we probably would have had a year or a year and a half."
But DHS had to hit the ground running. And indeed, it made huge strides closing some of the most glaring gaps.
Airport security, which had been relatively loose before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was tightened with the hiring and training of tens of thousands of screeners. Thousands of federal air marshals were hired. Airplane cockpit doors were secured. Security along the border and at seaports was tightened.
Perhaps most importantly, says James Jay Carafano, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation, people began to work together.
"You can walk in any port in America today, and if you grab a young Coast Guard lieutenant and walk around the port, he'll call everybody by their first name. Everybody knows who everybody is. That wasn't that way six years ago," he said.
Carafano calls it "easily the most complicated reorganization of the federal government that's ever been done." He said many people expected it would take at least five to seven years for the department to start functioning smoothly.
A Department Overwhelmed
Many of the agencies it inherited — such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (which became Immigration and Customs Enforcement) — came with their own morale and funding problems. And DHS was immediately bombarded by demands to protect just about everything. Homeland Security grants to state and local governments led to almost laughable results — money used to buy air-conditioned garbage trucks, for example.
Michael Chertoff, Ridge's replacement, promised to fix things when he took over in 2005. Chertoff said he'd focus the agency's limited resources on the most serious risks.
But then just six months into his tenure, the department met its first, real challenge. And failed.
In one fell swoop, Hurricane Katrina exposed all of the department's weaknesses: a lack of organization, resources and leadership. As the agency struggled to rebound, it was under mounting pressure to deal with another hot-button issue — illegal immigration — which further drained resources from its security mission.
Today, critics say that many of the gaps President Bush promised to close five years ago remain.
Radiation-detection equipment at ports is better at detecting kitty litter than dangerous weapons, critics say. Borders are so porous that congressional investigators carrying simulated nuclear materials have walked across unchallenged.
"Often they will cite as an accomplishment simply the fact of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Well, it takes more than a department called Homeland Security to secure the homeland," Clark Kent Ervin, the department's former inspector general, said. "The department has to work, and the department doesn't work."
Chertoff says the agency has been held to unrealistic standards, that the goal was never perfect security but the best the country can get without crippling the economy or civil liberties.
"To me, I think we are achieving our result, because we are, in fact, making it quite a bit harder for someone to come in from overseas and carry out an attack. And we're making it very much harder to carry out a catastrophic attack," Chertoff said.
He notes that, in fact, there hasn't been another attack since Sept. 11, 2001. The debate, as the department enters its next five years, is how much of that is due to the agency's actions and how much is just luck.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.