AUDIE CORNISH, host: One of the first responses in Washington to the 9/11 attacks was to rearrange the bureaucracy. Then President George W. Bush appointed former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as the first director of Homeland Security. In November 2002, Congress established a stand-alone Department of Homeland Security. The new department absorbed 22 different federal agencies, with the idea of unifying homeland security efforts. Has it made us safer? NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: In its early days, the Department of Homeland Security was something of a makeshift affair. The first secretary, Tom Ridge, operated out of a double cubicle, a bit more modest workspace than most of his fellow Cabinet officers. The different agency's computers couldn't talk to one another, and there were the inevitable turf wars. Current Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano gives her predecessors, Ridge and Michael Chertoff, a lot of credit for getting the thing going.
JANET NAPOLITANO HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I think that Secretary Ridge and Chertoff did yeomen's work in getting the department up off its feet. It's the kind of department that - it's kind of - you have to build the plane while you fly it, and I think that it has really begun to gel in important ways.
NAYLOR: The 9/11 Commission was formed to look back at the lessons taught by the Sept. 11th attacks. Commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton says The Department of Homeland Security remains a work in progress.
LEE HAMILTON: It is not seamless yet by any means. It is not easy to get all these people working together.
NAYLOR: But critics say how to best pull the bureaucratic levers is the least of Homeland Security's worries. The department has an annual budget of some $50 billion. Over the years, it's funneled some 35 billion in grants to local communities. That money has gone for the useful, such as new radios and computers to allow first responders from different communities to better communicate and to the questionable. For instance, several communities have used grants to purchase armored trucks called Bearcats.
A company video demonstrates the vehicles' capabilities, including injecting tear gas into buildings.
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NAYLOR: But do communities need an armored vehicle with a machine gun turret and chemical gas injector costing some $300,000 in the name of homeland security? John Mueller thinks not. Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State University, argues Homeland Security spending has far surpassed the actual risk of a terrorist attack.
JOHN MUELLER: We tried to look at how many people are killed worldwide by Islamic extremists per year outside of war zones, so that would include London and Bali and Madrid and all those terrible things. Well, it comes out to be maybe 2 to 400 people in the whole world outside of war zones per year. Now, clearly, that's 2 to 400 too many, but it's not exactly a massive existential threat to the world.
NAYLOR: Mueller says the Department of Homeland Security should use a more risk-based approach in deciding how to spend its money. Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano says the department is taking risk into account and she says much of the gear and training obtained by local responders across the nation has been put to good use, as recently as in the response to Hurricane Irene.
SECRETARY: The locals were able to handle that, and FEMA of course came in and was part of the team, but they didn't have to sit and rely on FEMA. In other words, they had the equipment, the training, the personnel needed for response and recovery.
NAYLOR: Another member of the 9/11 Commission, Steven Flynn, says Homeland Security needs to focus more on the idea of resiliency. Flynn, president of the Center for National Policy, a Washington think tank, says Americans should realize that it's impossible to guard against every conceivable attack, and instead learn how to deal with disaster.
STEVE FLYNN: Essentially, it's to be able to take a punch and bounce back is a key element of how we have to deal with terrorism. And resiliency is necessary because we can't prevent every risk from manifesting itself.
NAYLOR: And the Homeland Security Department may itself have to show some resilience. After years of growing budgets, the new austerity in Washington likely means spending on Homeland Security will decline, at headquarters and in local communities. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.