Assessing Half a Decade of Homeland Security Five years ago today, President Bush signed the legislation creating the federal Department of Homeland Security. What has gone right in the agency's early years? What hasn't gone so well?
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Assessing Half a Decade of Homeland Security

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Assessing Half a Decade of Homeland Security

Assessing Half a Decade of Homeland Security

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Five years ago today, President Bush signed the legislation creating the Federal Department of Homeland Security. The idea behind the new uber-agency was to consolidate all the disparate agencies that deal with keeping the country safe - from the formerly independent Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Transportation and Security Administration, which had been part of the Transportation Department, to the Secret Service which had been in the Treasury Department. If they were all in the same cabinet department, the argument went, they'd be less likely to work at cross-purposes.

Paul Light teaches at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service and he joins us in the studio. First, welcome to the program, Paul.

Dr. PAUL LIGHT (Professor of Public Service, New York University): Thank you.

HANSEN: You're a teacher, you follow the ins and outs of government, so let's start with an overall assessment. What grade would you give the Homeland Security Department five years down the road?

Dr. LIGHT: I think a B-minus.

HANSEN: And what's missing?

Dr. LIGHT: It really would be a better department if it had been built around eight to ten agencies that were really exclusively concerned with the border and with emergency response.

HANSEN: Hmm. Are there more reasons, specifically, why it's not working?

DR. LIGHT: Well, they've had tremendous problems with staffing. Congress wanted and mandated that it be a revenue-neutral and a personnel-neutral reorganization, meaning that it would stay the same as the agencies that were combined. It wouldn't grow. They've had problems with attrition. It is currently considered by its employees as the worst place to work in government.

HANSEN: Hmm.

Dr. LIGHT: And so they've got morale problems, obviously. And they have coordination problems. Many of the agencies that were moved in to Homeland Security didn't share much of the same mission, and that is still a problem within the reorganization.

HANSEN: What specific tasks do you think are still problematic?

Dr. LIGHT: Well, the borders are wide open. Cargo is still a problem. They've had huge procurement problems. I mean, it's a scandal a day. They can't seem to buy technology effectively. They can't seem to monitor their contracts effectively. And there are leaks all over the place in the overall structure of the protective shield that they were supposed to create.

HANSEN: We've focused on the negatives, let me ask any positive. What has worked best in the consolidation?

Dr. LIGHT: You know, I think the Transportation Security Administration for its flaws has done pretty well. The lines have moved quickly this weekend. They seem to be doing reasonably well at throughput, as they like to call it, getting bags and people through the lines. Every test that we make of their ability to detect explosive devices and handguns and so forth is a big question mark or an outright failure. And they tend to minimize that.

HANSEN: Are you condemning it with faint praise here?

Dr. LIGHT: Well, no. I think that they've come a long way. I mean, remember, TSA was started from scratch, so there was nothing there - no employees, no security checkpoints, absolutely nothing. Unlike many pieces of the department which were already up and running, TSA started with nothing. And I think they've come a long way.

Their current administrator is properly focused on vulnerabilities, you know. They still have problems with turnover among their screeners, although that's down somewhat we're told. But it's doing a pretty good job pushing people through, and I don't think it's a vulnerability any longer at the screening line. I think the vulnerabilities are outside the screening lines - in the perimeter and in the lobbies of these big airports.

HANSEN: I've just nominated you to head Homeland Security, what would you do differently?

Dr. LIGHT: I'd demand, as part of my nomination, that we get a staff increase so that we have enough people to do the job. I guess that's number one. And number two, I might send some of the agencies back to their original homes. It's still not clear to me why Secret Service is in there. The Coast Guard might be better off as an independent agency. There are other pieces of the organization that ought to be spun off, but we're not going to see much of that.

We've got the agency together and to break it apart right now is probably more expensive in terms of lost morale than keeping it together. It's - Homeland Security will be with us. We'll look back on its 100th anniversary and celebrate it. And that might be about as long as it takes to get it up and running.

HANSEN: Paul Light teaches at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. Thanks a lot for coming in.

Dr. LIGHT: You're very welcome.

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