Homeland Security: Rethinking What Works Obama will be the first new president to take office with a Department of Homeland Security, the agency created after the Sept. 11 attacks. Current DHS observers say he should look at the agency's successes and flaws before reorganizing it.

Homeland Security: Rethinking What Works

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Another challenge for Mr. Obama will be the Department of Homeland Security. Yesterday he named Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano to lead that huge department. DHS was created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and is still struggling to define its exact mission. As part of our series "Memo to the President," NPR's Pam Fessler reports that the president-elect is getting lots of advice on what to do now.

PAM FESSLER: For the most part, what we've come to know as homeland security has become a kind of background noise in our daily lives. We dutifully whip out photo ID to board a train or enter an office building. We remove our shoes and belts at the airport.

(Soundbite of security check)

Unidentified Woman: Let's try again.

Unidentified Man: There we go. Thank you.

Unidentified Woman: That's one good belt, huh?

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

FESSLER: But for Tim Sparapani of the ACLU, the question is whether any of this has made us safer. And he thinks now is as good a time as any to rethink what we do in the name of homeland security.

Mr. TIM SPARAPANI (Senior Legislative Counsel, American Civil Liberties Union): We started out in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 on this crazy path with the premise that somehow if we got your name, we could know enough about you in order to do security and prevent you from doing harm to the country.

FESSLER: But that's lead to a proliferation of ID requirements and an increased reliance on watch lists, which Sparapani thinks are of limited value, often snagging the innocent and slowing down commerce.

Mr. SPARAPANI: Any terrorist worth his or her salt can go out and get a fake ID in about 20 minutes, or they can show up under their own name if they're not a name of somebody that we've been monitoring abroad. And there are lots of people, unfortunately, who have been willing to be recruited whom we would never know about until the moment they actually commit an attack.

FESSLER: He and others think it would be better if the government focused more on developing good intelligence to help identify those who really do pose a threat. James Carafano, a homeland security expert at The Heritage Foundation, says our multibillion-dollar investment in what are known as guns, guards, and gates is the wrong way to go - that trying to protect every possible target is futile.

Dr. JAMES CARAFANO (Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation): You can't childproof your way out of this problem. And if you actually look at what's been most effective in preventing terrorist attacks, it's going out, finding conspiracies, and breaking them up, going out there and looking for the bad guys and stopping them before they even get near their target.

FESSLER: So his advice for the incoming administration?

Dr. CARAFANO: I would say worry about the greatest threat to homeland security, and that's the U.S. Congress.

FESSLER: More than a hundred committees and subcommittees have some piece of the homeland security pie. Carafano says that's led to lots of pork barrel spending and mandates that the fledgling agency change direction to respond to the crisis du jour, whether it's immigration or hurricanes or the threat of a biological attack.

Dr. CARAFANO: All Congress wants to do is to fixate on the Department of Homeland Security and pretend like it's a little rat trapped in the corner that it can just poke with a stick and watch it jump up and down.

FESSLER: And these pressures will likely grow. Local communities are expected to want more homeland security funding, not less. And calls to remove the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the department continue, two years after Hurricane Katrina. Former DHS Undersecretary for Preparedness George Forsman says President-elect Obama has to stay focused.

Mr. GEORGE FORSMAN (Former Undersecretary for Preparedness, Department of Homeland Security): I think that part of what the president-elect and his team are going to have to do in those first days of office is really focus not on rearranging the deckchairs, but really taking a hard assessment at what's working, what's not working...

FESSLER: And what can be done to strengthen the department. Homeland Security, created by merging 22 different agencies, has one of the lowest employee morales in the federal government. Current Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says his advice for the new administration is to stay the course.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): I'm going to write a memo myself. I'm clearly going to suggest that we need to continue to implement what we've done to keep dangerous people out of the country.

FESSLER: And that includes a planned virtual fence along the border and new, more secure driver's licenses. But these measures face growing opposition as public concern about terrorism wanes. The question for some is whether the new president, focused on a troubled economy, will have the time and desire to make big changes in homeland security and maybe get blamed if there's another attack. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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