June 1, 2006  

Homeland insecurity

Post-9/11 fixes haven’t fixed a thing

Police and firefighters in major U.S. cities still can’t communicate reliably in a crisis. When airline passengers are screened before being allowed to fly, they aren’t checked against all terrorist watch lists. Some grants awarded to communities to improve homeland security were spent on air-conditioned garbage trucks and body armor for dogs.

“Scandalous,” concluded the 9/11 Commission as it issued a final, mediocre-to-failing report card to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security before disbanding in December.

Three months later, House Democrats issued a report card of their own — equally gloomy. “What we have seen does not inspire much confidence,” Democrats said.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created three years ago — the largest part of the largest overhaul of the U.S. government in a half-century. Along with the creation of an intelligence czar — the director of national intelligence (DNI) — the overhaul was intended to strengthen the nation’s ability to prevent, and if necessary, respond to terrorist attacks.

But so far, DHS and DNI seem to generate as much skepticism as reassurance. DHS, in particular, has become “one of the town’s punching bags,” said Richard Falkenrath, an early architect of the department and a former security aide to President Bush. The department is blamed for the federal government’s woeful response to Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, it is criticized for inadequate port security and accused of failing to secure the nation’s borders.

But is it really that bad? “It’s a partial success,” said Falkenrath. “But no part of the U.S. government can be said to be a complete success.”

Besides being new, which in itself posed major organization and management challenges inherent in bringing together 180,000 employees from 22 agencies, the department “has some of the hardest accounts in government — immigration, emergency management, transportation security,” Falkenrath said.

The department is “basically on the right track, it’s just not moving as fast as people would like,” he said.

Not according to the Democrats on the House Committee on Homeland Security. They assess the department as on the verge of failure in responsibilities that range from protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure to emergency response. It’s only slightly better in securing the borders and protecting surface transportation. And the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina “created serious questions about how much more secure our nation is five years after 9/11,” they said in a report in March. “We have more questions than answers on the department’s progress.”

The key question for many, including the 9/11 Commission, is “are we safer?” Yes, say DHS defenders who point to the fact that there have been no terrorists attacks in the U.S. since 2001.

“We are safer,” says the 9/11 Commission, “but we are not as safe as we need to be.”

“Are we safer? It’s a stupid question,” said James Carafano, a homeland security and defense expert at the Heritage Foundation. “If your metric is no more terrorist attacks, you’re going to fail.” The more important question is, “Do we have a resilient society?” he said. Does normal life continue, more or less, despite a terrorist attack? By that standard, Carafano says, we’re doing pretty well.

As evidence, he cites Hurricane Katrina, the calamity so often cited as evidence of the federal government’s failure. Although a massive hurricane hit New Orleans and inundated the city, only about half as many people died as were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, he said. The Coast Guard rescued more than 30,000. Energy production was disrupted and energy prices spiked, but business and the nation’s economy carried on essentially uninterrupted. Compare the impact of Katrina with the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Carafano suggests.

“We have a pretty robust disaster response in this country.”

National response

Carafano agrees with the 9/11 Commission on at least one item. The commission criticized the lack of “risk-based allocation of homeland security funding.” Money intended to patch up the worst security weaknesses is instead being doled out in a manner approaching entitlements, hence the air-conditioned garbage trucks and Kevlar-clad dogs.

“We’re buying hoods and gas masks and fire trucks,” Carafano said. What’s getting funded is whatever has the strongest political constituency rather than the greatest need.

Instead, the Department of Homeland Security should be focused on developing a national emergency response capability, Carafano said. Federal money should be used to build an emergency communications infrastructure, emergency operations centers, situational awareness capabilities and training for first responders. The federal government should be developing an emergency response system that localities can plug into, he said. To focus on individual vulnerabilities — and issue report cards flunking air passenger screening and port security — is not especially useful, he said.

David Schanzer agrees, but says that’s one area where the department has fallen short.

“What’s lacking is an overall approach — what are the end goals, what are the steps to get there, and what are the metrics for measuring progress? It’s not just about how many cargo containers are inspected or how many chemical plants have video surveillance,” said Schanzer, who is director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Schanzer is also the former Democratic staff director of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The first thing DHS should be asked to produce is a national plan for how to build security into the fabric of the nation’s society and economy over the long term, he said. The department has produced a document on national homeland security strategy, “but we have not moved beyond that. There is no plan for an end state and how we get there,” he said.

The second part of the homeland security overhaul, intelligence reform, is clearly troubled. The creation of the post of director of national intelligence was supposed to improve intelligence sharing and analysis gathered by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. The DNI also runs the National Counterterrorism Center that organizes and analyzes intelligence pertaining to terrorism.

But the year-old DNI office, headed by John Negroponte, is earning mixed reviews. An apparent power struggle between the DNI and the former national intelligence chief, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, left CIA Director Porter Goss among the casualties May 5.

At best, there are reports of modest improvements in information sharing among notoriously turf-conscious intelligence agencies. At worst is news that the once peerless CIA is in disarray.

There has been an exodus of senior officials, while key intelligence problems, such as finding Osama bin Laden, remain unresolved. But even as the CIA fades, there is concern that Negroponte’s office is expanding too much, possibly turning into yet another layer of bureaucracy. The House-passed 2007 Intelligence Authorization Act passed in May discloses that the office budget has expanded to nearly $1 billion and the staff has grown to 1,539.

“The Committee has concern that the director of national intelligence is pursuing a path that will make the Office of the Director of National Intelligence less an intended ‘orchestration mechanism,’ and more another layer of large, unintended and unnecessary bureaucracy,” House Intelligence Committee staff wrote in a report on the authorization act.

“In a sense, it’s becoming another intelligence agency” said Carafano. “That happens when you put operational functions” — the National Counterterrorism Center — in an organization that was intended mainly to be an “independent coordinator” of intelligence collected by others. “The coordination function gets neglected” and the office “becomes a rival, not an independent coordinator.”

House lawmakers approved Negroponte’s $990 million budget but put a temporary hold on about 20 percent of it, pending assurances that the office is not becoming bloated. In an April address at the National Press Club, Negroponte argued that his office is not overly large. “My last three overseas embassies were larger than the Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” he said.

The 9/11 Commission offered this: “We have made minimal progress so far on information sharing. You can change the law, you can change the technology, but you still need to change the culture.”

And yet, on the 9/11 Commission’s report card, the director of national intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center both received generous Bs.