Feb. 28, 2013
Imagine a labyrinthine government department so bloated that few have any clear idea of just what its countless pieces do. Imagine that tens of billions of tax dollars are disappearing into it annually, black hole-style, since it can’t pass a congressionally mandated audit.
Now, imagine that there are two such departments, both gigantic, and you’re beginning to grasp the new, twenty-first century American security paradigm.
For decades, the Department of Defense has met this definition to a T. Since 2003, however, it hasn’t been alone. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which celebrates its 10th birthday this March, has grown into a miniature Pentagon. It’s supposed to be the actual “defense” department -- since the Pentagon is essentially a Department of Offense -- and it’s rife with all the same issues and defects that critics of the military-industrial complex have decried for decades. In other words, “homeland security” has become another obese boondoggle.
But here’s the strange thing: unlike the Pentagon, this monstrosity draws no attention whatsoever -- even though, by our calculations, this country has spent a jaw-dropping $791 billion on “homeland security” since 9/11. To give you a sense of just how big that is, Washington spent an inflation-adjusted $500 billion on the entire New Deal.
Despite sucking up a sum of money that could have rebuilt crumbling infrastructure from coast to coast, this new agency and the very concept of “homeland security” have largely flown beneath the media radar -- with disastrous results.
And that’s really no surprise, given how the DHS came into existence.
A few months before 9/11, Congress issued a national security report acknowledging that U.S. defense policy had not evolved to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. The report recommended a “national homeland security agency” with a single leader to oversee homeland security-style initiatives across the full range of the federal government. Although the report warned that a terrorist attack could take place on American soil, it collected dust.
Then the attack came, and lawmakers of both political parties and the American public wanted swift, decisive action. President George W. Bush's top officials and advisers saw in 9/11 their main chance to knock off Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and establish a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East. Others, who generally called themselves champions of small government, saw an opportunity to expand big government at home by increasing security spending.
Their decision to combine domestic security under one agency turned out to be like sending the Titanic into the nearest field of icebergs.
President Bush first created an Office of Homeland Security in the White House and then, with the Homeland Security Act of 2002, laid plans for a new executive department. The DHS was funded with billions of dollars and staffed with 180,000 federal employees when it opened for business on March 1, 2003. It qualified as the largest reorganization of the federal government since 1947 when, fittingly, the Department of Defense was established.
Announcing plans for this new branch of government, President Bush made a little-known declaration of “mission accomplished” that long preceded that infamous banner strung up on an aircraft carrier to celebrate his “victory” in Iraq. In November 2002, he said, “The continuing threat of terrorism, the threat of mass murder on our own soil, will be met with a unified, effective response.”
Mission unaccomplished (big time).
A decade later, a close look at the hodge-podge of homeland security programs that now spans the U.S. government reveals that there’s nothing “unified” about it. Not all homeland security programs are managed through the Department of Homeland Security, nor are all programs at the Department of Homeland Security related to securing the homeland.
Federal officials created the DHS by pulling together 22 existing government departments, including stand-alone agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known by its acronym FEMA, and the Coast Guard, which came with programs both related and unrelated to counterterrorism. They also brought into the DHS a host of programs that had previously existed as parts of other agencies like the Nuclear Incident Response Team from the Department of Energy and the Transportation Security Administration at the Department of Transportation. To knit these disparate parts together, officials built a mammoth bureaucracy over an already existing set of bureaucracies. At the same time, they left a host of counterterrorism programs scattered across the rest of the federal government, which means, a decade later, many activities at the DHS are duplicated by similar programs elsewhere.
A trail of breadcrumbs in federal budget documents shows how much is spent on homeland security and by which agencies, though details about what that money is buying are scarce. The DHS budget was $60 billion last year. However, only $35 billion was designated for counterterrorism programs of various sorts. In the meantime, total federal funding for (small-h, small-s) homeland security was $68 billion -- a number that, in addition to the DHS money, includes $17 billion for the Department of Defense, plus around $4 billion each for the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, with the last few billion scattered across virtually every other federal agency in existence.
From the time this new security bureaucracy rumbled into operation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Washington’s internal watchdog, called the DHS a “high risk” proposition. And it’s never changed its tune. Regular GAO reports scrutinize the department and identify major problems. In March of last year, for instance, one GAO report noted that the office had recommended a total of 1,600 changes. At that time, the department had only “addressed about half of them” -- and addressed doesn’t necessarily mean solved.
So rest assured, in the best of all possible homeland security worlds, there are only 800-odd issues outstanding, according to the government’s own watchdog, after we as a nation poured $791 billion down the homeland security rabbit hole. Indeed, there remain gaping problems in the very areas that the DHS is supposedly securing on our behalf:
Those are just a few of a multitude of glaring problems inside the now decade-old department. Because homeland security is not confined to one agency, however, rest assured that neither is its bungling:
Washington has poured staggering billions into securing the so-called homeland, but in so many of the areas meant to be secured there remain glaring holes the size of that gaping wound in the Titanic’s side. And yet over the past decade -- even with these problems -- terrorist attacks on the homeland have scarcely hurt a soul. That may offer a clue into just how misplaced the very notion of the Department of Homeland Security was in the first place. In the wake of 9/11, pouring tiny percentages of that DHS money into less flashy safety issues, from death by food to death by gun to death by car, to mention just three, might have made Americans genuinely safer at, by comparison, minimal cost.
Perhaps the strangest part of homeland security operations may be this: there is no agreed-upon definition for just what homeland security is. The funds Washington has poured into the concept will soon enough approach a trillion dollars and yet it’s a concept with no clear boundaries that no one can agree on. Worse yet, few are asking the hard questions about what security we actually need or how best to achieve it. Instead, Washington has built a sprawling bureaucracy riddled with problems and set it on autopilot.
And that brings us to today. Budget cuts are in the pipeline for most federal programs, but many lawmakers vocally oppose any reductions in security funding. What’s painfully clear is this: the mere fact that a program is given the label of national or homeland security does not mean that its downsizing would compromise American safety. Overwhelming evidence of waste, duplication, and poor management suggests that Washington could spend far less on security, target it better, and be so much safer.
Meanwhile, the same report that warned in early 2001 of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil also recommended redoubling funding for education in science and technology.
In the current budget-cutting fever, the urge to protect boundless funding for national security programs by dismantling investment essential to this country’s greatness -- including world-class education and infrastructure systems -- is bound to be powerful. So whenever you hear the phrase “homeland security,” watch out: your long-term safety may be at risk.