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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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* Recently, it came to light that the DHS had spent $431 million on a radio system for communication within the department -- but only one of more than 400 employees questioned about the system claimed to have the slightest idea how to use it.  It’s never surprising to hear that officials at separate agencies have trouble coordinating, but this was an indication that, even within the DHS, employees struggle with the basics of communication.

* In a survey that covered all federal departments, DHS employees reported rock-bottom levels of  engagement with their work.  Its own workers called the DHS the  worst federal agency to work for.

Those are just a few of a multitude of glaring problems inside the now decade-old department. Because homeland security is not confined to one agency, however, rest assured that neither is its bungling:

* There is, for instance, that $17 billion in homeland security funding at the Department of Defense -- a mountain of cash for defending against terrorist attacks, protecting U.S. airspace, and providing security at military bases. But perhaps defense officials feel that $17 billion is insufficient, since an October 2012  report by the GAO found the Pentagon had outdated and incomplete plans for responding to a domestic attack, including confusion about the chain of command should such an event take place.  That should be no surprise, though: the Pentagon is so replete with  oversight problems and obsolete, astronomically expensive programs that it makes the DHS look like a trim, well-oiled machine.

* Or consider the domestic counterterrorism unit at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), which enjoyed $461 million in homeland security funding last year and is housed not at the DHS or the Pentagon but at the Department of Justice.  ATF  made headlines for giving marked firearms to Mexican smugglers and losing track of them -- and then finding that the weapons were used in heinous crimes. More recently, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, ATF has drawn attention because it fails one of the most obvious tests of oversight and responsibility: it lacks a confirmed director at the helm of its operations. (According to The Hill newspaper, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) is currently  holding up President Obama’s appointment to head the agency.)

Washington has poured staggering billions into securing the so-called homeland, but in so many of the areas meant to be secured there remain glaring holes the size of that gaping wound in the Titanic’s side.  And yet over the past decade -- even with these problems -- terrorist attacks on the homeland have scarcely hurt a soul.  That may offer a clue into just how misplaced the very notion of the Department of Homeland Security was in the first place.  In the wake of 9/11, pouring tiny percentages of that DHS money into less flashy safety issues, from  death by food to death by gun to death by car, to mention just three, might have made Americans genuinely safer at, by comparison, minimal cost.

Perhaps the strangest part of homeland security operations may be this: there is no agreed-upon definition for just what homeland security is. The funds Washington has poured into the concept will soon enough approach a trillion dollars and yet it’s a concept with no clear boundaries that no one can agree on.  Worse yet, few are asking the hard questions about what security we actually need or how best to achieve it.  Instead, Washington has built a sprawling bureaucracy riddled with problems and set it on autopilot.

And that brings us to today. Budget cuts are in the pipeline for most federal programs, but many lawmakers vocally oppose any reductions in security funding. What’s painfully clear is this: the mere fact that a program is given the label of national or homeland security does not mean that its downsizing would compromise American safety. Overwhelming evidence of  wasteduplication, and poor management suggests that Washington could spend far less on security, target it better, and be so much safer.