Assessing Homeland Security

Eight former Homeland Security Department officials reflected on the department's first two years at a forum in Washington Tuesday. They shared unusually candid observations about the difficulties of resource allocation, the pressures the department faced and mistakes made in the past.

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Eight former officials of the Department of Homeland Security are asking how to improve security here in the United States. They met at a forum sponsored by IBM and American University and their discussion came as new Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is considering ways to reorganize the agency to make it more effective. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

The eight officials are among more than a dozen top managers who've left the Homeland Security Department in recent months. Some left for better opportunities, but there was also some burnout. Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said those on the dais looked tanned and relaxed, nothing like the colleagues they left behind.

Mr. TOM RIDGE (Former Homeland Security Secretary): They have that on-call, 24/7 face, a very stern focus, very serious-minded. Normally, you see them with a cell phone in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

FESSLER: He and the other officials seemed pretty happy to have handed off the baton. Former Deputy Secretary James Loy said those who started the department, which involved merging 22 different agencies, had to deal with the emotional aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He said the fact that the terrorists used airplanes meant the department was under a lot of pressure initially to deal with airport security.

Mr. JAMES LOY (Former Homeland Security Deputy Secretary): Had that 9/11 event occurred at a port or at a train station or in a pipeline system somewhere, my suggestion to all of us is that there would have been dramatically different flow of dollars in revenue attended to grappling with whatever actually occurred on that day.

FESSLER: And, indeed, the department has faced growing criticism for not devoting more money to protecting things other than airplanes. But the former official said one thing they've learned is that the government has to be circumspect about how it spends Homeland Security funds, that not everything can be secured. Frank Libutti was the undersecretary who oversaw intelligence analysis.

Mr. FRANK LIBUTTI (Undersecretary, Homeland Security): We don't have the luxury of having in our back pocket the attack plan devised by the enemy. So we have to deal with what's called risk management.

FESSLER: And that means trying to assess where the threat is greatest given what's known about the objectives of terrorists.

Mr. LIBUTTI: Essentially, it's kill people, destroy our way of life and affect the economy in ways that would not simply be a recovery period of a couple of weeks but much longer in terms of months and years.

FESSLER: But since its creation, the department's been under constant pressure from Congress and state and local officials to protect just about every potential target. New Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff says he wants to change that, but whether he'll succeed remains to be seen. The former officials said they were hampered by the fact that they had to report to dozens of congressional committees and that they had no policy office to look at the big picture. Ridge also admitted mistakes when it came to alerting the public about potential threats. After the forum, he told reporters he knew that warnings by top administration officials were sometimes confusing.

Mr. RIDGE: Director Mueller, Secretary-General Ashcroft and then Tom Ridge went out, before we had the department, and said be alert, beware, be vigilant and have a good day. That didn't--you know, people didn't really buy that.

FESSLER: He said he pushed to have more information shared with the public and local law enforcement officials to help explain the threat but that other agencies resisted. He thinks that's one reason people have had so much trouble with the agency's color-coded alert system.

Mr. RIDGE: It could be colors, it could be numbers, it could be animals. I don't care what you use to designate the trigger, but it's what kind of information do you share when you raise the threat level I think is more important to the public.

FESSLER: Chertoff says he's reviewing that system as well. His proposals for the department are expected out in the next few weeks.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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