Reporter Notebook: DHS, Five Years On

Five years after the Department of Homeland Security was formed, much of what the government has done in creating the huge bureaucracy seems to be unrelated to what those on the front lines say they need to keep the country safe.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

NPR's Pam Fessler has been covering the Department of Homeland Security since its inception five years ago. She has a lot to talk - lot of time to think about how the United States responds to disaster.

PAM FESSLER: I've been to countless hearings and news conferences these past five years, where my eyes have glazed over, my mind numbed by a wave of bureaucratese - all the things I don't put on the radio.

Unidentified Man #1: The domestic nuclear detection office, DNDO - D-N-D-O - is developing the next generation of radiation…

Unidentified Man #2: SUPB identified short-term initiatives it can implement to address attrition needs.

Unidentified Man #3: The implementation of WHGI facilitative technology and the requirements to present secure documents…

FESSLER: It's at these times I wonder, is this what are enemies are doing? Dealing with acronyms and organizational charts? Worrying about grand formulas? Giving PowerPoint presentations like this one from Homeland Security on first responder ID cards. Here, from slide one, is strategic objective one and I, quote, "establishment of a multi-jurisdictional identity trust model in accordance with existing standards and technology that," well, you get the idea.

A lot of progress has been made building a Homeland Security Department, but it's the people who've stuck with me most. One of the first I interviewed was Diana Dean, the Customs inspector in Washington State, who stopped Ahmed Ressam, the Millennium Bomber, on his way to blow up L.A. Airport. She thought he seem suspicious.

I asked Dean in 2003, what would help her do a better job.

Ms. DIANA DEAN (U.S. Customs Inspector): If we can have one thing here that we don't have that we'd like, we'd have a dog.

FESSLER: Not some multi-million dollar gizmo, just a dog to sniff drugs or bombs. But I checked, and no, they still don't have one. Dean said that no technology was helpful at the border, but one of the best tools was the instincts of those on the frontlines.

Ms. DEAN: You still need that inspector to ask those questions and to hear the responses that you're going to get.

FESSLER: I remembered these all last month, when I went to Vermont and heard complaints that Customs and Border Protection inspectors had less discretion because of new procedures and technology used to screen travelers.

Mr. JOHN WILDE(ph) (Former U.S. Customs Inspector): Now, you get the false sense of security. You'd only have passports that are okay.

FESSLER: John Wilde is a recently retired inspector. He thinks some changes make no sense.

Mr. WILDE: I worked here for 30 years. I drive through the port. And the inspector I've worked with for many years will say, John, I need to see a piece of ID. Why? You know who I am.

FESSLER: But, he says, those are the rules for CBP officers at DHS.

SIMON: NPR's Pam Fessler.

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Experts Challenge Homeland Security Strategy

This is the third in a three-part report.

Container i i

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer stands near a shipping container entering the Port of Palm Beach's radiation scanner. Homeland security consultant Randy Larsen says that DHS' time and money would be better spent preventing terrorists from getting nuclear materials in the first place. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Container

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer stands near a shipping container entering the Port of Palm Beach's radiation scanner. Homeland security consultant Randy Larsen says that DHS' time and money would be better spent preventing terrorists from getting nuclear materials in the first place.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Chertoff i i

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says that if critics don't like what the department is doing, they should come up with a better idea. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Chertoff

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says that if critics don't like what the department is doing, they should come up with a better idea.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Carafano i i

James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says DHS should be getting the biggest bang for the buck. Courtesy Heritage Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Heritage Foundation
Carafano

James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says DHS should be getting the biggest bang for the buck.

Courtesy Heritage Foundation
Lieberman i i

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, heads the Senate Homeland Security Committee, one of more than 80 congressional committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over DHS. Getty Images Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Lieberman

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, heads the Senate Homeland Security Committee, one of more than 80 congressional committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over DHS. Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Experts Weigh In

Homeland security experts agree that DHS has faced a tough battle from the beginning, and they have a variety of suggestions on how to make the agency run better.

 

Click here to read and hear key voices in the debate over how to make the country safer.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is getting tired of everyone beating up on his agency.

If critics don't like what the department is doing, Chertoff offers a challenge: Come up with a better idea.

"Should we eliminate the watch lists? Would you then get on an airplane, or put your children on an airplane in that kind of environment? Would you open the border? What would you do, then, when a terrorist or a drug dealer came in? Would you raise your hand and say, 'I take responsibility for that'?" Chertoff asked.

Chertoff says he's willing to debate the issue anytime and anywhere — and a lot of people might be willing to take him up on the offer.

Miles of Shoreline

At Baltimore's inner harbor, schoolchildren play outside after visiting an aquarium. Most people feel pretty safe at this busy site. Millions of dollars have been spent to secure the city's ports and other facilities. But Homeland Security consultant Randy Larsen sees a major weakness.

He points to the water.

"Any small vessel capable of carrying a Hiroshima-size bomb could just come right up into the harbor," Larsen said.

And he says there's little chance it would be stopped. The Coast Guard is smaller than the New York City police department but has to patrol 95,000 miles of shoreline.

The main way Homeland Security protects a city like Baltimore from nuclear weapons is by checking cargo containers at the port. Larsen thinks that focus is all wrong.

"The issue must be on preventing terrorists from getting their hands on nuclear materials. That's not about X-raying and doing radiological scans of containers," Larsen said.

Larsen's recent book, Our Own Worst Enemy, bemoans what he sees as a lack of common sense when it comes to homeland security. He thinks the government spends too much on "guns, guards and gates" and not enough on intelligence and nuclear nonproliferation, which might be more effective.

Stephen Flynn with the Council on Foreign Relations also thinks the department's counterterrorism focus is wrong. He says that the agency has squandered the most useful weapon it has: the expertise and relationships that its frontline employees get when they do their more traditional, non-security jobs, such as working with companies on facilitating trade.

The department's emphasis on law enforcement and security rules alienates the very people that could help detect another attack, including those in the immigrant community, according to Flynn.

Flynn says he learned a valuable lesson while serving in the Coast Guard, which is now part of Homeland Security.

"The way I used to — back in my patrol boat days — find a drug smuggler, was often looking in a fishing ground where he may be fishing where there's no fish," Flynn says. "I knew that because I had a fishery mission, and as I developed expertise in that mission, I could spot somebody who was trying to pretend that he was a fisherman when he really wasn't."

As the department enters its next five years, questions are being raised more and more about the best way to spend limited time and money.

As James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, explains it, the department should be getting the biggest bang for the buck.

"We don't do that," Carafano says.

For example, there's an "infinitesimally" small chance someone might try to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the country in a container, he said, but a Washington lobbyist might convince lawmakers that it's worth screening every container, even if the cost is $20 billion.

"But nobody ever says, 'What else could I do with that $20 billion?'" Carafano says.

And what about the other costs, such as lost business or personal freedom?

So Many Masters

Chertoff says he is trying to weigh all the alternatives. But, he says, he's often pulled in many directions, especially by Congress.

More than 80 committees and subcommittees have some jurisdiction over his agency. He says lawmakers have little incentive to look at the big picture.

"We're serving so many masters with so many inconsistent positions that it's very hard to do our job," Chertoff says.

In fact, almost everyone interviewed for this series cited as a major problem the failure of Congress to consolidate its oversight of Homeland Security. It's the one recommendation of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission that lawmakers chose to ignore.

Connecticut Independent Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who serves as the head of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, agrees that it's a hindrance for the department, but he thinks there are more serious concerns.

"The Department of Homeland Security has to continue to improve its management capabilities — that is, its management of its own operations — and to work very hard at recruiting very good people to fill the jobs in the department," Lieberman said.

The department has suffered from high turnover and low morale. But it's a vicious cycle: The more high-profile mistakes the department makes, the harder it is to attract new talent to make sure those mistakes don't happen again.

For example, it didn't help when the FEMA press office decided to stage a phony news conference because it had notified reporters too late for any real reporters to show up.

Elaine Kamarck, who used to work in the Clinton administration and is now a government reform expert at Harvard's Kennedy School, says there is no leadership at DHS.

"You have enormous turnover in the political staff. You have enormous turnover among the career people," Kamarck says.

Single Agency, Spread Out

Kamarck said she thinks the department is too big and that some parts, such as FEMA, need to be removed. When the agency was created in 2002, it merged two dozen agencies and almost 200,000 federal employees.

Others warn against a massive reorganization because what the department needs now is stability and cohesion. After all, the whole reason DHS was created was to close gaps between government agencies.

And on that front, there's one glaring symbol of failure: The department's offices are still spread all over the Washington, D.C., area.

A drive around to just a few of them shows how difficult it can be to work as a single agency.

FEMA is nearly two miles away from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The headquarters for the Transportation Security Administration are a few miles away from FEMA in Virginia. Customs and Border Protection is three miles from TSA in Washington. And Chertoff's office in the main DHS headquarters is in yet another part of the city.

Last month, Congress eliminated the funding needed to start building a huge, new headquarters complex — another setback for an agency still struggling to get on its feet.

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