A Decade of Homeland Security

November 28, 2012

by Joseph Jerome

Ten years ago this week, President Bush signed the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the Department of Homeland Security. Its formation involved the most extensive reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947. Throwing together 22 different agencies with the goal of analyzing threats, guarding our borders and infrastructures, and coordinating emergency response would take, in the words of President Bush, “time, and focus, and steady resolve. Adjustments will be needed along the way.”

A decade later, ACS and the Open Society Foundations brought together a panel of homeland security experts to discuss what adjustments had been made -- and what adjustments were still required to ensure DHS could protect both the security and the civil liberties of American citizens. According to Michael German, Senior Policy Counsel at the ACLU, DHS “rushed right in with an imperative to do something. Not do something effective.”  Seth Grossman, Deputy General Counsel at DHS, cautioned that his department remained a young agency: “We’ve learned a lot of lessons and will continue to.”

With over 200,000 employees and a budget approaching $60 billion per year, part of the problem -- and opportunity -- that DHS presents is its sheer size and the scope of its work. Moderating the discussion, Professor Stephen Vladeck wondered whether there was any theme that linked together the agency’s diverse responsibilities. Grossman pointed to the Department’s reaction to the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, arguing that having everything from FEMA to immigration services and the Coast Guard under one roof allowed DHS to have “a robust, active, and more coordinated role” in responding to the disaster.

But obvious questions remain about DHS’ effectiveness, particularly regarding the gathering and collection of intelligence, one of the Department’s primary responsibilities. A recent report out of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that DHS efforts to set up state and local intelligence “fusion centers” have produced shoddy, untimely intelligence, while endangering Americans’ civil liberties and violating the Privacy Act. Jamil Jaffer, Senior Counsel at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence noted that there is “a lot of confusion in the field among state and locals about who to call [regarding intelligence].” Criticizing the fusion centers, the Open Society’s Wendy Patten argued that the most effective counterterrorism work is done through “good ole fashion ‘roll up your sleeves’ law enforcement” rather than sophisticated fusion centers. “To the extent DHS is stumbling [on intelligence collection], they’re stumbling along with everyone else,” German conceded, later adding that local law enforcement likely would prefer “more officers on the street, than 55 flat panel TVs in a fusion center.”  

The high cost of homeland security is often a frequent criticism of post-9/11 security policy, and the costs of running DHS did not escape the panel’s scrutiny. DHS estimates that it has spent somewhere between $289 and $1.4 billion on fusion centers in the past decade, and German suggested that the inability of the Department’s own overseers to know how much money had been spent is a serious problem. The process of allocating money on homeland security is simply too opaque, he argued.

Taking off his “moderator hat” for a moment, Vladeck stated that any conversation about the “cost” of homeland security needed to address the decline in civil liberties that has run alongside the increasing fiscal price tag. One solution that has wide support is improving both the internal and external oversight of the Department.

Grossman pointed to the work of Margo Schlanger, who spent the early part of the Obama administration serving as Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties within DHS, as an example of how DHS is trying to address these concerns. She was “very involved in the front end” of creating agency policy, he stated, and was “not just doing an audit” after problems or complaints arose. Providing a congressional oversight prospective, Jaffer called for “good, aggressive oversight that moves the ball forward” on key issues like intelligence gathering and cybersecurity.

In an ACS Law Talk to accompany the event, former congressman and 9/11 Commission Vice-Chairman Lee Hamilton discussed the state of homeland security, what fixes are in order, and how we can better oversee our national security apparatus. Hamilton argued that “a good bit of work needs to be done on oversight of DHS.” As Jaffer admitted, his committee only possesses jurisdiction over a portion of DHS’ portfolio. According to Hamilton, the lack of unified oversight over the disparate arms of DHS is one of the primary reasons it has “not really gelled into a single cohesive department.  It gets a lot of conflicting direction.” For years, the members of the 9/11 Commission have implored Congress to resolve this problem.

While Hamilton could clearly conclude that “we’ve made significant progress since the 9/11 attacks,” Grossman summed up a decade of DHS best when he stated, simply, there remains “more work to be done.”