The federal agency responsible for preparing the country to cope with terrorist threats and natural disasters, the Department of Homeland Security, is one of the least accountable and poorest managed federal agencies.
That's according to the administration's own ratings. The 2008 President's Management Agenda Scorecard, published June 30, which measures the efficiency of federal agencies, found that on three out of five performance measures the Department of Homeland Security has "serious flaws." Only the U.S. Veterans Administration was rated equally poorly in three areas. The Department of Defense was the only other federal agency to receive the lowest rating for its efforts to improve performance.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, the single Oregonian in Congress assigned to a Homeland Security Committee, said the department is too large and disparate to function well.
"Homeland Security has been disastrous," DeFazio told the Skanner.
"It's a $40 billion bureaucracy. Its priorities are misplaced and there is not enough accountability. We should not have created the largest bureaucracy in the history of the modern world."
DeFazio Blames Poor Design
De Fazio said the department was rushed into existence in 2002 at a time when the administration was under attack for failing to use intelligence that could have prevented the September 11 attacks.
"The Bush administration drew it up on the back of a napkin on an evening when they were trying to bump Colleen Rowley's testimony from the news," he said. "Prior to that President Bush was opposed to creating a department of homeland security. He was against it before he was for it."
Rowley, then an FBI agent based in Minneapolis, was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when the president unveiled his plan for the new department on June 7, 2002. She told the committee that agents were denied a search warrant to examine the contents of a computer belonging to Zacarias Moussaoui containing details of the 9/11 plot. Moussaui later was convicted for his role in the attacks and sentenced to life in prison.
Administration officials say meetings to plan the new department had been underway since April 2002. "Over time, officials concluded that a full-fledged department was necessary "to fight an enduring war," White House spokesman Ari Fleisher told reporters at the time.
When it was created, the Department of Homeland Security combined 22 different agencies including: The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Office of Domestic Preparedness, the Secret Service, the U.S Coast Guard, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, U.S. Customs, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and the Transportation Security Administration.
Comments from Republican members of the committee had not reached the Skanner by press time, but Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, discussed the department's work in a statement released on the anniversary of 9/11.
"We created the Department of Homeland Security to provide a unifying core to the enormous effort of detecting and preventing terrorist attacks, assessing and protecting our vulnerabilities, and improving our response to disasters of all types. Based on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the Homeland Security Committee, which I chaired, brought about the most comprehensive reform of our intelligence community in more than a half century so that the trail of "dots" terrorists leave behind as they plan, train, and organize will never again be left unconnected. We have strengthened our borders, and increased protection of our seaports and vulnerable chemical facilities. We have provided vital equipment and training to our first responders—dedicated emergency personnel who protect our communities."
Winslow T. Wheeler, a longtime national security staffer in the U.S. Senate who now heads the nonpartisan Strauss Military Reform Project, said better oversight on the homeland security and defense budgets is needed.
"They have pretty much of a bad reputation for being pretty much of a mess," he said.
Watchdog Faults Cyber-security Failures
A report released Sept.16 by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan agency that reports to Congress, criticizes the department for failing to secure vital national computer systems. As things stand, the report says, "our nation's cyber critical infrastructure is at risk of increasing threats posed by terrorists, nation-states, and others."
Cyber security is just one of several homeland security missions the
General Accountability Office has examined and found wanting. In a July
15 letter to Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, William Jenkins Jr., a high-ranking GAO staffer, discusses problems with FEMA and with emergency preparedness in general. DHS has made "limited progress in its emergency preparedness and response efforts," Jenkins states. "At the most fundamental level, DHS has not yet developed a means of measuring the nation's overall preparedness—at federal, state, and local levels—based on a list of targeted capabilities and has not yet
completed an inventory of all federal response capabilities required by
the Post-Katrina Act."
Rep. DeFazio said he has supported moves to remove FEMA from the department of Homeland Security to help it become a "top notch first responder for disasters." Currently, he said his main concern is to push for improved port security and coordination with airports. "We have better technology that we could be using to protect our airports."