RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Department of Homeland Security began to take shape five years ago this month. It involved the merger of two dozen agencies and almost 200,000 federal employees. It was supposed to make the country safer. Now, more than $200 billion later, the Department of Homeland Security still faces questions about its effectiveness.

NPR's Pam Fessler has the first of three stories about one of the government's biggest overhauls.

PAM FESSLER: When President Bush signed legislation creating the new department, everyone knew it would be a long haul, that such a massive reorganization would be tough. But there was also agreement after 9/11 that something had to be done.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The Department of Homeland Security will focus the full resources of the American government on the safety of the American people.

FESSLER: The president told a packed White House audience that the department would close gaps between government agencies - gaps that had allowed the terrorists to succeed. He said the next attack would be met with a unified response. But the seeds of trouble for the new department were planted even before it was up and running, and some were evident that day at the White House.

Ms. COLLEEN KELLEY (National Treasury Employees Union): I received a phone call from Secretary Ridge, personally inviting me to the signing, and - which I appreciated, but I told him when he first asked me that I did not think I would attend.

FESSLER: Colleen Kelley is president of the National Treasury Employees Union. She represented thousands of customs employees about to be absorbed into Homeland Security. There had just been a bitter fight in Congress setting up the agency, and unions were upset that the president had broad new powers over working conditions. Tom Ridge, the president's choice to head Homeland Security, wanted to patch things up, but Kelly was wary.

Ms. KELLEY: It was clear to us that the actions they were going to take were not going to be in the best interest of employees and that they really had not listened to the input of the employees and of the unions.

FESSLER: Kelly did, in the end, attend the signing, but says after some initial attempts to work together, the relationship soured. Indeed, high employee turnover and low morale continue to dog the department. Last year, Homeland Security had the lowest job satisfaction rating out of 36 government agencies. Department leaders say they're trying to improve the situation. But in the hectic earlier days, there were many other concerns.

Mr. JOHN ASHCROFT (Former Attorney General): Recent reporting indicates an increased likelihood that al-Qaida may attempt to attack Americans...

FESSLER: Just two weeks into the new department, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the government was raising its color-coded alert level to orange. That meant a high risk of attack. But the announcement was confusing. People were told something terrible could happen, but that they should still travel and go shopping. Officials in the new department tried to help. They advised people to prepare for an attack by stocking up on, among other things, duct tape. That sent the new department's credibility into freefall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEWIS BLACK (Comedian): I know that we all feel a lot safer now that Homeland Security is in place.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FESSLER: Comedians such as Lewis Black had a field day.

Mr. BLACK: The only way duct tape protects you from a chemical attack is if you have enough that you could wrap it around yourself and suffocate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TOM RIDGE (Former Secretary, Department of Homeland Security): Yeah, we took a little bit of a public relations beating.

FESSLER: Tom Ridge, who left the department three years ago and is now a consultant, says some of the earliest setbacks were due to the sheer magnitude of the job - trying to create a huge new agency while also worrying about another attack.

Mr. RIDGE: We had little time to begin the integration process that is necessary for any such aggregation of people and assets and technology. If we would have been in the private sector, we'd probably had a year or a year and a half to prepare.

FESSLER: But this agency had to hit the ground running. And indeed, it made huge strides closing some of the most glaring gaps. Airport security, which had been relatively loose before 9/11, was tightened with the hiring and training of tens of thousands of screeners. Federal air marshals were hired. Airplane cockpit doors were secured. Security along the border and its seaports was tightened.

Perhaps most importantly, says James Jay Carafano, a Homeland Security expert at the Heritage Foundation, people began to work together.

Mr. JAMES JAY CARAFANO (Heritage Foundation): You can walk in any port in America today and if you grab a young Coast Guard lieutenant and walk around the port, he'll call everybody by their first name. Everybody knows who everybody is. That wasn't that way six years ago.

FESSLER: He says if your expectations for the first five years are realistic, the department hasn't done such a bad job.

Mr. CARAFANO: It was easily the most complicated reorganization of the federal government that's ever been done.

FESSLER: In many ways, the department was overwhelmed. Many of the agencies it inherited, such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, came with their own morale and funding problems. And the department was immediately bombarded by demands to protect just about everything.

Homeland Security grants to state and local governments led to almost laughable results - money used to buy air-conditioned garbage trucks, for example. Big-city mayors such as New York's Michael Bloomberg complained that it made no sense to cut their funding so money could go elsewhere.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City): When you stop a terrorist, they have a map of New York City in their pocket. They don't have a map of any of the other 46 places or 45 places.

FESSLER: Ridge's replacement, Michael Chertoff, promised to fix things when he took over in 2005. He said he'd focus the agency's limited resources on the most serious risks. But then just six months into his tenure, the department met its first real challenge and failed.

Unidentified Man: We got kids, we got babies, we need medicine and all that. Nobody came down here to help us.

FESSLER: In one fell swoop, Hurricane Katrina exposed all of the department's weaknesses - a lack of organization, resources and leadership. As the agency struggled to rebound, it was under mounting pressure to deal with another hot- button issue - illegal immigration - which further drained resources from its security mission.

Today, critics say that many of the gaps President Bush promised to close five years ago remain. Radiation-detection equipment at ports is better at detecting kitty litter than dangerous weapons. Borders are so porous that congressional investigators carrying simulated nuclear materials can walk across unchallenged.

Clark Kent Ervin is the department's former inspector general.

Mr. CLARK KENT ERVIN (Former Inspector General): Often they will cite as an accomplishment simply the fact of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Well, it takes more than a department called Homeland Security to secure the homeland. The department has to work, and the department doesn't work.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): Recognizing that Rome wasn't built in a day, and this department's not going to be built in a day, I think we've made a lot of progress.

FESSLER: Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff says the agency has been held to unrealistic standards, that the goal was never perfect security but the best the country can get without crippling the economy or civil liberties.

Sec. CHERTOFF: To me, I think we're achieving our result because we are in fact making it quite a bit harder for someone to come in from overseas and carry out an attack. And we're making it very much harder to carry out a catastrophic attack.

FESSLER: He notes that in fact, there hasn't been another attack since 9/11. The debate, as the department enters its next five years, is how much of that is due to the agency's actions, and how much of it is just luck.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: At npr.org, you can explore key moments that shaped the Department of Homeland Security, plus hear more from key voices in the debate over how to make the country safer.

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