Happy Birthday, DHS!

By Ivan Eland

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) just turned five years old. It seems like it was born just yesterday.

The department’s growing pains have made it a slow learner and a downright ugly child. Born in an atmosphere of tension and fear, and cobbled together from pieces of other government departments and agencies, the prospects for this Frankenstein offspring were always dim. Yet, as Congress frequently does in times of crisis, the legislative body, in the wake of 9/11, had to be seen as doing something—anything—to respond to the crisis, even if its actions were ineffective and even counterproductive.

And predictably, the Department of Homeland Security has been a disaster. In the wake of the federal government’s failure to prevent or stop 9/11—when the principal problem was the failure of large, slothful security agencies to coordinate against a small, agile terrorist group—the last thing the country needed was another ponderous department. Yet Congress glued together 22 disparate agencies, superimposed another layer of bureaucracy on top of them to manage the new department, astronomically increased the department’s budget to $38 billion per year and its personnel from 170,000 to 208,000 employees, and oversaw the department’s activities with 86 congressional committees and subcommittees. In creating more bureaucracy to coordinate, Congress never told the American people exactly how security against nimble, non-bureaucratic terrorist groups would be enhanced.

In fact, over its five years, the department has become the butt of jokes for its color-coded terror warning system, grossly incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, pork-barrel spending, intrusive and largely ineffectual airline security, and expensive security projects gone awry.

Throughout its history, the color-coded warning system seems to just toggle between the mid-levels, orange and yellow, leading to suspicion that it is designed as merely for show, to demonstrate to the American public that their government is ever vigilant against terrorists. Setting the dial at red would cause everyone to stay locked down in their homes—afraid to go to the shopping mall to buoy the faltering economy. If the government were to move the indicator to blue or green and a terrorist attack occurred, fingers would be pointed at DHS for sleeping as the threat worsened. So the indicator stays between orange and yellow, even though the department has not made clear what the public should do at any of the levels.

Most politically damaging to DHS was its abysmal and incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina. Yet many members of Congress became “disgusted” with the department’s response in New Orleans at the same time they were sending DHS money elsewhere to their own states and congressional districts for useless pork-barrel projects. Much of DHS spending still spreads the pork to cities and states around the country to help the reelection chances of politicians, rather than sending money to cities that might actually have a remote chance of being hit by a terrorist attack (for example, New York and Washington).

Politics has also been involved in security for air travel. Even if the federal government had done nothing, air security would have improved dramatically after Sept. 11. Prior to 9/11, airline crewmembers and passengers had been encouraged to cooperate with any airplane hijackers. In many hijackings over the years, a familiar pattern had emerged, wherein the hijackers would at worst shoot a couple of passengers to show they meant business and order the plane to Cuba or some other remote location. The hijackers’ purpose was to draw attention to their cause, and if the crew and passengers played ball, most could expect to live. That paradigm changed drastically on 9/11. On the fourth plane, apparently the passengers and crew realized that they were being forcibly recruited for a suicide mission that would end not only all of their lives, but potentially those of many more people in any building the plane would hit. Heroically, they evidently got nasty with the terrorists and foiled the hijacking attempt. Later, a similarly surly crew and passengers famously foiled an attempt by Richard Reid to set his explosive shoes on fire. With far more aggressive passengers and crew – having visions of dying in a mass suicidal bombing mission—pity (not really) the terrorists who try to take over or destroy a plane in a post-9/11 world.

If this monumental security improvement, which DHS had nothing to do with, was not enough, the department probably could have stopped once it had hardened cockpit doors. Federalizing airport security checkpoints, making passengers partially disrobe and requiring them to throw away liquid toiletries, provides only marginal security improvement but much passenger frustration. Despite such security “enhancements,” repeated investigative studies have shown that alarming amounts of contraband still get through the checkpoints undetected. DHS overinvests in such checkpoint measures because many voters fly and thus are reminded that their government is taking very visible actions (however annoying) to make them safe. In contrast, less money is spent, for example, on the security of air cargo, ports, or chemical plants, because few voters visit air cargo terminals (or even the baggage compartment of their own plane), the dock where their new Toyota is being delivered, or the factories where the petrochemical ingredients of many consumer products are made. Once again, DHS’ priorities are based more on politics than on actual threats.

Finally, the DHS bureaucracy has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars by blowing the development and purchase of many new high-tech security systems. Even with the excessive emphasis on air security, the department has projected that it could require $22 billion and 16 more years to deploy advanced systems for screening airline baggage, and has been inept at fielding new “puffer devices,” which blow air on passengers to detect explosives, according to the Washington Post.

At the ports and borders, DHS is also struggling. Granted, the congressional demand that all inbound shipping containers be scanned is unrealistic, unnecessary, and ridiculous, but Congress was reacting to DHS’ having put port security on the back burner. In addition, DHS has proven incompetent in fielding equipment to detect nuclear devices. At the borders, despite prescient warnings by outside experts, the expensive “virtual” border fence of sensors was so poorly designed that DHS had to pay the contractor to start over, and the first phase of the project may not be completed until 2011. Finally, the project to track the entry and exit of foreign visitors using photos and fingerprints has been scrapped indefinitely (on the exit side) because of its excessive cost and technological difficulties.

Thus, at the age of five, DHS has all the bureaucratic sclerosis of an octogenarian and is on the road to juvenile delinquency.

-Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute.

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