Commentary Magazine


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Are We Secure?

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded “security advisory system,” the terrorist “threat level” is currently yellow. To meet the elevated danger, citizens are urged to “develop alternate routes to/from work or school and practice them.” If the threat level rises to orange, or “high risk,” we are supposed to “exercise caution when traveling.” If it rises to red, or “severe risk,” we should, among other untoward things, “expect traffic delays.”

DHS’s traffic-light warning system is easy to mock, especially by New Yorkers like me who routinely expect traffic delays and, thanks to the vagaries of the subway system, are constantly compelled to practice alternate routes to work–whether we want to or not. 

But what about the DHS itself? In 2003, in the aftermath of the worst attack on our country in its history, the establishment of the agency was the centerpiece of the biggest reorganization of government since the New Deal. Five years later, how is it faring? By the most important measure, it is faring very well indeed. Against all expectations, the United States has not been struck again since September 11. The homeland appears to be secure.

But is that the work of the DHS or the FBI and CIA or the U.S. Army, or dumb luck, or a combination of all of the above? It is impossible to know. What is possible to know is that DHS is plagued by a number of severe problems. It ranks last or next-to-last in the U.S. government’s survey of Best Places to Work survey. In addition to “serious morale” issues–a GAO finding–some of the ailments of the previous fractured system of homeland protection are re-emerging, and some new ills are cropping up as well.

In creating the DHS, President Bush declared that “the changing nature of the threats facing America requires a new government structure to protect against invisible enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons.” His idea was to reconfigure “the current confusing patchwork of government activities into a single department whose primary mission is to protect our homeland.” That seemed reasonable enough in theory, promising efficiencies of all sorts in agencies with complementary and overlapping missions.

But it also promised to be extremely problematic in practice. Anyone with any familiarity with federal bureaucracies knows that combining two into one is as arduous a task as mating kangaroos with rabbits. In this instance, the proposal was to unite 22 very different bureaucratic animals, ranging from the Secret Service to the Coast Guard. The result is a lumbering behemoth, with a massive 180,000 employees spread out over hundreds of locations and subject to oversight by 86 Congressional committees. Although strong in certain things, it is also an unwieldy creature that may be quite ill-adapted to its initial primary mission of keeping the country secure from a major terrorist attack.

One problematic part of the venture is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In 2005, as is well known, it did a heckuva of a job in mishandling the consequences of Hurricane Katrina. Lessons are said to have been learned from that experience and immense resources have been invested in reconfiguring FEMA’s plans to cope with future natural disasters, ranging from tornados to earthquakes. That is fine, and necessary. Yet it means that DHS as a whole ends up compelled to devote a significant fraction of management resources to preparing for weather-related contingencies rather than focusing on the central threat.

 ”June 1 is, of course, as you know, the kick-off for hurricane season,” explained Michael Chertoff, Secretary of DHS, at a press conference earlier this month. “I don’t think the official prediction for the season is out yet…In 2006, it was also a pretty mild season, but I hope that doesn’t lull us into believing we don’t have to prepare for 2008.” If the highest registers of the bureaucracy are deeply into weather forecasting, some of the lower registers are off into other ventures that also have zero connection to the larger goals of the reform. 

Another component of DHS is the United States Fire Administration, whose mission is to reduce the financial and human costs of one of our country’s major killers. “Take a flashlight with you,” the Fire Administration advises anyone checking into a hotel or motel. “If the fire is in your room, get out quickly. Close the door, sound the alarm and notify the front desk.” No reasonable person would quarrel with such instructions, but how relevant is this to stopping the next Mohammed Atta?

The Coast Guard, too, has major missions completely unrelated to homeland defense. These include the regulation of maritime navigation and safety, protection of the marine environment, search and rescue, and ice-breaking. All of which raises the question: has consolidation of so many disparate agencies, each with its own set of objectives not directly related to homeland security, made us safer or merely rejiggered the organizational charts?

The question is unanswerable and we are confronted with an unpleasant paradox. Whether the warning light is green, light, or red, unless and until a second major terrorist attack takes place, we won’t know whether DHS is up to its job. And at that moment, by definition, the DHS’s protective function will have been shown to fail. If the target happens to be a motel or hotel, we will be needing our flashlights and calling the front desk.