RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Five years after its creation, the Department of Homeland Security has made big changes to the way the country protects itself. Some security experts think the agency is going about it all wrong though, and it's a debate likely to grow when a new administration takes charge next year.
In this final In Our Series, NPR's Pam Fessler talked to the secretary of Homeland Security, and outside experts who have ideas on how to make it better.
PAM FESSLER: Okay, so here's the challenge. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is getting tired of everyone beating up on his agency. He says if you don't like what the department's doing, come up with a better idea.
Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): If you have a criticism, what's your better way? What's your alternative? If you don't like what TSA does, should we eliminate the checkpoints? 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?
FESSLER: Chertoff says he's willing to debate the issue anytime, anywhere, and a lot of people might be willing to take him up on the offer.
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FESSLER: 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.
Mr. RANDY LARSEN (Consultant): Any small vessel capable of carrying a Hiroshima-size bomb could just come right up into the harbor, the inner harbor here.
FESSLER: 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.
Mr. LARSEN: 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.
FESSLER: 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 things such as intelligence and nonproliferation, which might be more effective.
Stephen Flynn with the Council on Foreign Relations also thinks the department's focus is wrong and that it's squandered the most useful weapon it has: the expertise and relationships its frontline employees get when they do their more traditional, non-security jobs.
Dr. STEPHEN FLYNN (Council on Foreign Relations): The department was set up, basically said you've got to do counterterrorism and your focus should be just on counterterrorism, and we can't afford the rest of these things. And it's the rest of those things that really were the things that made them national security assets.
FESSLER: Flynn says he learned a lesson in the Coast Guard, now part of Homeland Security.
Dr. FLYNN: 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. 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.
FESSLER: Flynn says instead the department's emphasis on law enforcement and security rules alienates the very people it might need to help detect another attack, including those in the immigrant community. Such questions are being raised more and more as Homeland Security enters its second five years. What's the best way to spend limited time and money? What's the right balance?
Dr. JAMES JAY CARAFANO (Heritage Foundation): We have to ask the question - is where do you get the biggest bang for the buck? We don't do that.
FESSLER: James Jay Carafano is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Dr. CARAFANO: Everybody in Congress and every lobbyist is an insurance salesman. They come to you with the - wouldn't you just - you know, wouldn't you just spent pennies a day to insure your child for the rest of your life? Well, there's an infinitesimally small chance somebody might try to smuggle a nuclear weapon in the United States in a container, but isn't it worth it just to try to stop that? Well, and you go, okay, yeah, well, it's going to cost $20 billion. Oh, well, okay, but $20 billion to stop a nuclear attack. But nobody ever says, what else could I do with that $20 billion?
FESSLER: And what are the other costs in terms of lost business or personal freedom? Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff says that's exactly what he is trying to do - weigh the alternatives - but that 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.
Sec. CHERTOFF: We're serving so many masters with so many inconsistent positions that it's very hard to do our job.
FESSLER: In fact, almost everyone interviewed for this series cited the failure of Congress to consolidate its oversight of Homeland Security as a major problem. It's the one recommendation of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission that lawmakers chose to ignore.
Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman agrees that it's a hindrance for the department, but thinks there are more serious concerns.
Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): 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.
FESSLER: 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 they don't happen again. For example, it didn't help when the FEMA press office decided to stage a phony news conference after it notified reporters too late for any real reporters to show up.
Elaine Kamarck, who used to work in the Clinton administration, is a government reform expert at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Dr. ELAINE KAMARCK (Harvard University): You have enormous turnover in the political staff. You have enormous turnover among the career people. There's no leadership there.
FESSLER: She thinks the department is too big, that some parts, such as FEMA, need to be removed. But others say that would be the worst thing, that what the department needs now is stability. After all, the whole reason it 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.
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FESSLER: A drive around to just a few of them shows how difficult it can be to work as a single agency.
Here I am right in front of the main offices of one Homeland Security department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But if I want to talk to somebody at FEMA, I have to drive here, across town about 1.7 miles away, where FEMA has its headquarters. And what about the Coast Guard? Another two miles. But what if I want to go to the Transportation Security Administration? That means going across state lines into Virginia.
Now let's try Customs and Border Protection. That's almost another three miles. Then what about the big headquarters, where Michael Chertoff is? To get there, I have to drive to a whole different part of the city.
Everyone thinks Homeland Security has to be more cohesive. But 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.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: Curious about the history of the Department of Homeland Security? Hear the first two parts of our series at npr.org.
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