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Department of Homeland Security: Bloated, Ill-defined Boondoggle

After ten years, no one can define it or explain where all those billions of dollars went.

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Federal officials  created the DHS by pulling together 22 existing government departments, including stand-alone agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known by its acronym FEMA, and the Coast Guard, which came with programs both related and unrelated to counterterrorism.  They also brought into the DHS a host of programs that had previously existed as parts of other agencies like the Nuclear Incident Response Team from the Department of Energy and the Transportation Security Administration at the Department of Transportation.  To knit these disparate parts together, officials built a mammoth bureaucracy over an already existing set of bureaucracies.  At the same time, they left a host of counterterrorism programs scattered across the rest of the federal government, which means, a decade later, many activities at the DHS are duplicated by similar programs elsewhere.

A trail of breadcrumbs in federal  budget documents shows how much is spent on homeland security and by which agencies, though details about what that money is buying are scarce.  The DHS budget was $60 billion last year.  However, only $35 billion was designated for counterterrorism programs of various sorts.  In the meantime, total federal funding for (small-h, small-s) homeland security was $68 billion -- a number that, in addition to the DHS money, includes $17 billion for the Department of Defense, plus around $4 billion each for the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, with the last few billion scattered across virtually every other federal agency in existence.

From the time this new security bureaucracy rumbled into operation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Washington’s internal watchdog, called the DHS a “ high risk” proposition.  And it’s never changed its tune. Regular GAO reports scrutinize the department and identify major problems.  In March of last year, for instance, one GAO report  noted that the office had recommended a total of 1,600 changes.  At that time, the department had only “addressed about half of them” -- and addressed doesn’t necessarily mean solved.

So rest assured, in the best of all possible homeland security worlds, there are only 800-odd issues outstanding, according to the government’s own watchdog, after we as a nation poured $791 billion down the homeland security rabbit hole.  Indeed, there remain gaping problems in the very areas that the DHS is supposedly securing on our behalf:

* Consider port security: you wouldn’t have much trouble overnighting a weapon of mass destruction into the United States.  Cargo terminals are the entry point for containers from all over the world, and a series of reports have found myriad vulnerabilities -- including  gaps in screening for nuclear and radiological materials.  After spending $200 million on new screening technology, the DHS determined it wouldn’t deliver sufficient improvements and cancelled the program (but not the cost to you, the taxpayer).

* Then there are the problems of screening people crossing into this country.  The lion’s share of responsibility for border security lies with part of the DHS, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which had an $11.7 billion budget in fiscal 2012.  But in the land of utter duplication that is Washington’s version of counterterrorism, there is also something called the Border Security Program at the State Department, with a separate pot of funding to the tune of $2.2 billion last year.  The  jury’s out on whether these programs are faintly doing their jobs, even as they themselves define them.  As with so many other DHS programs, the one thing they are doing successfully is closing and locking down what was once considered an “open” society.

* For around $14 billion each year, the Department of Homeland Security handles disaster response and recovery through FEMA, something that’s meant to encompass preparedness for man-made as well as natural disasters. But a 2012 investigation by the GAO  found that FEMA employs an outdated method of assessing a disaster-struck region’s ability to respond and recover without federal intervention -- helpfully, that report came out just a month before  Hurricane Sandy.