Friday, December 31, 2004

Homeland Security questions

By Shaun Waterman

WASHINGTON, (UPI) -- The chaotic and embarrassing departure from the scene of Department of Homeland Security Secretary-designate Bernard Kerik is just the latest, though hopefully last, crisis that the department faced in 2004, and the succession vacuum that resulted -- however brief -- serves to underline the deep and disturbing question marks that hang over the troubled agency.

Set up in March last year by the merger of the 22 agencies that shared responsibility for protecting the country from terrorism and other threats, the Department of Homeland Security is the federal government's newest department -- and, with 180,000 employees, one of its largest.

Proponents argued that the biggest re-organization of the federal government since the formation of the Department of Defense in 1947 was necessary to ensure the integration of U.S. counter-terrorist efforts, and avoid the communications breakdowns and information compartmentalization that helped the Sept. 11 suicide hijackers enter the country and put their deadly scheme into practice.

But at the conclusion of its first full year in existence, many of the department's key objectives -- like a single watch list of known or suspected terrorists, or a complete database of vulnerable critical infrastructure -- remain unfulfilled. Going forward, the department faces a host of enormous challenges, and its spotty track record offers no guarantee that it will be able to rise to meet them.

On the contrary, experts and insiders alike argue that, without major reforms and exceptional leadership, the department is likely to continue stumbling from crisis to crisis, and may eventually be condemned to bureaucratic irrelevance.

"The new secretary will have to defend the department's interests in continuing turf conflicts," John Gannon, staff director of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security told United Press International.

Indeed. In the Byzantine, internecine turf conflicts that shape the bureaucratic landscape of the federal government, Homeland Security has lost out repeatedly.

Part of the department's statutory responsibility, Gannon pointed out, was to integrate intelligence about the threats from terrorist groups with information about the weak points in U.S. infrastructure, in order to identify where the greatest risks of attack are. The only really novel element of the department was the Information Analysis unit -- established to do just that.

But the directorate's work remains radically incomplete, and much of the task of analyzing the risk of terror attacks is currently being done by the CIA's Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which -- following the passage of the Sept. 11 reform bill -- is to be expanded into the National Counter-Terrorism Center.

"The new law raises questions about what responsibilities the NCTC will have that should be in the department," said Gannon, who predicted "bureaucratic tension" over the respective roles and responsibilities of the new center and the Information Analysis unit of homeland security. Gannon said lawmakers will be "watching this closely to protect (the department's) authorities."

Matters are complicated by the recent departure of the Undersecretary for Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Frank Libutti, and the desire -- long reported by a variety of sources -- of both his principle deputies to leave as well.

The Information Analysis unit is "still building its critical capability and turf conflicts should not be allowed to complicate the process," concluded Gannon.

On other fronts, too, Homeland Security has been outmaneuvered by its bureaucratic rivals. The FBI has nibbled away repeatedly at the responsibilities of the department for investigation -- first taking the lead role in tracking terrorist financing and more recently assuming control of arms smuggling investigations, too.

Both these areas were formerly the province of Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- the Homeland Security agency charged with hunting down money launderers, sanctions busters and human traffickers, and which is the sole enforcer of immigration laws inside the United States.

But ICE, as it is known, has other problems, too. A report from the department's inspector general concluded that the agency "fell seriously behind in basic accounting functions," saying in effect that it did not know how much money it was spending. "A void exists in the financial management infrastructure at ICE that likely will continue to jeopardize the integrity" of the whole department's financial reporting, the report concluded.

ICE officials say that the agencies financial woes have not stopped them from more than doubling the number of fugitive aliens they have apprehended to over 7,000; or from bringing nearly 900 indictments for money laundering and other financial crimes.

In many ways ICE is a poster child for the challenges officials faced in merging the 22 entities that went into the new department. The agency is made up of parts of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service combined with elements of Customs. But other parts of those agencies went into different elements of the new department, creating an organizational nightmare for managers.

"This was the biggest government re-organization in half a century, and we did it in the middle of a war," said Frank Cilluffo, the vice president for homeland security at George Washington University. Cilluffo, who was the first homeland security adviser to President Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, likened it to "trying to rebuild an airplane engine in mid flight."

"We had two different agencies being split among three different components of (the Department of Homeland Security)," said ICE spokesman Dean Boyd, who called the process "challenging."

The way the merger was done, he explained, left many unanswered questions about the allocation of costs -- such as rent on premises -- between three different parts of the new department.

So severe have the tensions been over these questions that the department has commissioned an independent audit to examine the way these costs were apportioned. "These issues are very, very complex. Every agency is making claims about its costs and how the reimbursements should be done," said Boyd. "Going forward, we want to ensure that this is resolved."

In the meantime, ICE has had to take drastic cost-saving measures, like a hiring freeze and a ban on all "non-mission critical" travel or other expenditure, instituted this year.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that the word crisis gets used a lot to describe the state of affairs at Homeland Security.

"If you talk to people in the department, they will tell you there's a crisis," David Heyman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told UPI. "But in Chinese, the character meaning 'crisis' is formed from two other characters -- 'danger' and 'opportunity.'"

Heyman and James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation recently published a report calling for a complete restructuring of the department. They want Congress to legislate radical changes in the way the department is organized, with a flatter management structure and the elimination of the four directorates into which it is currently divided.

"The department is weighed down by layers of unnecessary bureaucracy, rife with turf warfare and lacks a structure for strategic thinking and policy-making," said Heyman.

Carafano added that it would be "much better off if it was managed in a more private sector way" with strong operational agencies, like the Coast Guard, reporting through powerful chief executives directly to the department's leadership -- rather than through undersecretaries, as at present.

On the other hand, management needs to be strengthened by empowering the officials in charge of procurement and information technology -- who are currently unable to effectively impose their will on the various elements of the department -- and by making the deputy secretary a kind of chief operating officer, with the power to run things on a day-to-day level.

Restructuring? Already? But the department has only just been created.

Which is exactly why Carafano said that now is "the magic moment."

"We need to make the changes before the current structure calcifies and the stakeholders get entrenched," he told UPI, pointing out that after President Eisenhower failed to get structures in place to enforce close co-operation between the military services as the Department of Defense was established in 1947, it took 40 years to get the job done -- by the Goldwater-Nichols reforms of 1986.

The lesson is clear, as far as the report's authors are concerned. "If we do not fix (the department) now," said CSIS's John Hamre, "we risk permanently embedding pre-Sept. 11 thinking into the decision-making structures of our nation's homeland security."

The report's authors said they hope Congress will take up the recommendations next year. Gannon said he thought the department ought to "look seriously" at the recommendations, pointing out that the existing structure has not enabled the department's leadership to adequately address management problems like the lack of an information technology architecture, or inadequate financial controls.

Despite several requests, the Homeland Security Department did not make a senior official available to UPI for this article. But Deputy Press Secretary Katie Mynster, while stressing the department welcomed input and suggestions, said that they were "comfortable with the current structure and confident it is working well."

One program that even the department's fiercest critics acknowledge as a success is perhaps its most ambitious undertaking to date.

US-VISIT -- the acronym stands for Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology -- is a massive program to biometrically verify the identities of every foreigner who arrives in the United States, using digital fingerprints and photographs. The system is designed to prevent people using forged or stolen documents, or assuming fake or stolen identities.

Rolled out last January at half a dozen airports, US-VISIT has processed more than 13 million foreigners. Now in place at every airport, the system has also been established out at several major land border crossings and seaports. Checking visitors' fingerprints against FBI databases has caught dozens of criminals trying to enter the country under false names -- but no terrorists so far.

In the year ahead, the department plans to introduce US-VISIT at every land crossing, and to begin exit registration for foreigners leaving the country. Eventually the system should be able to alert officials when visitors remain in the country after their visa has expired.

But land crossings -- with their huge traffic volumes and location on crucial trade routes -- and exit registration -- with no checkpoints to ensure compliance -- are precisely the most difficult elements of the system.

Gannon said could be no guarantee that the roll out would be successful.

"I do not know where the department is going to be in a year's time," he said, "but the quality of congressional oversight will make a big difference in its progress."

Congressional oversight has been another big problem for the department, with jurisdiction split among dozens of congressional committees. Aviation security, for instance, comes under the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, while immigration enforcement is the province of Judiciary. As a result, officials say, the department's leadership spends an inordinate amount of time testifying on Capitol Hill.

"They are spending so much time up here," said one congressional staff member, "that it's a wonder they've got anything to testify about."

Carafano says that establishing a single oversight body is perhaps the most important single reform the department needs.

The Senate recently voted to rename the Government Affairs Committee the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee -- but much of the jurisdiction over the department remains the province of other panels.

Gannon says they want to do better in the House, which will vote in January on a rule making the House committee permanent and outlining new jurisdiction arrangements. He wants the new standing committee established by the rule to be the department's "single authorizing committee, assisting them to establish priorities and to measure progress in meeting them.

To do this effectively, he said, the new committee "will need adequate jurisdiction" to avoid "clashing needlessly with other ... committees."

"We are now engaged in serious negotiations with other committees to get the balance right," he told UPI, acknowledging that it will not be easy to strip powerful committees of their turf.

"As we all know, jurisdiction among congressional committees is the jealously guarded coin of the realm."

But he said he was "pleased" with progress so far and "confident" in the end result.

Personality is also fate when it comes to the department itself, it would seem, and outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge -- affable, straightforward and seemingly tireless -- will be sorely missed on that point.

"In many ways, he embodied the department," says Cilluffo. "He was a voice for the people on the front lines -- the first responders and other state and local officials."

"He wrote the forward and the first couple of chapters of the history of this country at one of its defining moments... Those are big shoes to fill."

Stephen McHale, a career senior official who left the department over the summer, says that Ridge's closeness to the president was also very valuable to the department.

"You need the support of the president to deal with (the Office of Management and Budget) and White House staff," he said.

McHale, who was second in command at the Transportation Security Administration -- the single largest and highest-profile element of the department -- believes that homeland security continues to need that support.

"The DHS is very new, and therefore, in the Washington bureaucracy, it's vulnerable," he said.

And that, argued McHale, makes the selection a replacement crucial. "It will indicate how seriously the administration is going to take the department," he says. "It will send a message."

The nominations of former White House staff members close to the president to Cabinet posts has set the bar, according to McHale. Putting White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales in as attorney general and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice as secretary of State "gives high visibility to those departments," and without a leader who is also close to the president, the department runs the risk of being bureaucratically eclipsed.

George Foresman, homeland security adviser to Virginia's Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, agreed that the selection of a successor to Ridge is crucial, especially with a swathe of other senior officials said to be ready to leave as well.

Because the department is so new, suggested Foresman, it lacks the bureaucratic inertia that carries forward other government departments even in the absence of leadership.

"Every other department has a long established institutional civil service structures that keeps the place running. Although homeland security contains agencies such as the Coast Guard or the Federal Emergency Management Agency with a strong institutional identity and bureaucratic infrastructures, (the Department of Homeland Security) as a whole doesn't have one."

There is one final reason why Foresman thinks the pick is "the most significant appointment in the administration" -- it may well define the president's legacy.

"If there is a major event -- a terrorist attack, or a big earthquake -- in the next four years, how we respond to that, how we share information and work together at all levels of government and how we recover from it, that will all be crucial to how Bush's legacy is seen."


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