Homeland Security: Doomed from the Start?

Susan B. Glasser and Michael Grunwald have a front page piece in today’s WaPo under the ominous heading “PRELUDE TO DISASTER : The Making of DHS” in which they argue that the Department’s Mission Was Undermined From Start.

For one thing, they seemed to have a bizarre set of priorities. They decide that Priority 1 was brand identity.

[They] hired Landor Associates, the same company that invented the FedEx name and the BP sunflower, and together they began to rebrand a behemoth Landor described in a confidential briefing as a “disparate organization with a lack of focus.” They developed a new DHS typeface (Joanna, with modifications) and color scheme (cool gray, red and hints of “punched-up” blue). They debated new uniforms for its armies of agents and focus-group-tested a new seal designed to convey “strength” and “gravitas.” The department even got its own lapel pin, which was given to all 180,000 of its employees — with Ridge’s signature — to celebrate its “brand launch” that June. “It’s got to have its own story,” Neely explained.

Having recently been with an organization that did precisely the same thing, I cringe at this. If the executive leadership is worried about color schemes and typefaces, they’re lost.

Nearly three years after it was created in the largest government reorganization since the Department of Defense, DHS does have a story, but so far it is one of haphazard design, bureaucratic warfare and unfulfilled promises. The department’s first significant test — its response to Hurricane Katrina in August — exposed a troubled organization where preparedness was more slogan than mission.

Born out of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, DHS was initially expected to synthesize intelligence, secure borders, protect infrastructure and prepare for the next catastrophe. For most of those missions, the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission recently gave the Bush administration D’s or F’s. To some extent, the department was set up to fail. It was assigned the awesome responsibility of defending the homeland without the investigative, intelligence and military powers of the FBI, CIA and the Pentagon; it was also repeatedly undermined by the White House that initially opposed its creation. But the department has also struggled to execute even seemingly basic tasks, such as prioritizing America’s most critical infrastructure.

When Coast Guard Adm. James M. Loy signed on as Ridge’s top deputy in the fall of 2003, “I found turmoil,” he recalled, and “lack of strategic direction.” When Loy left earlier this year, he believed DHS was sorely in need of “a midcourse correction.” And Michael Chertoff, Ridge’s successor, said in an interview that when he arrived in February, he was disturbed by the department’s “insufficient focus on outcome and mission.” Chertoff was so disturbed that he has already proposed a broad restructuring of DHS.

This was all rather predictable, I’m afraid. I was more than a little skeptical about the formation of DHS to begin with, seeing it as mostly reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Consolidating disparate bureaus and agencies under a single roof, repurposing them as Homeland Security, and then leaving the key components necessary to achieve the mission outside the new Department because of bureaucratic infighting, was not likely to be a recipe for success.

Interviews with dozens of participants in DHS’s formation and operation — including Ridge and Chertoff, White House aides, Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, and current and former DHS officials — suggest the sheer magnitude of the bureaucratic challenge overwhelmed the department’s leaders. They worked almost full time on the merger, too busy to do much more than manage their inboxes, referee internal turf wars and wage losing battles with departments that commanded more clout at the White House.

Most corporate mergers fail, and even the successful ones often take years to produce dividends. DHS can point to some results, including hardened cockpit doors on commercial airliners, background checks for truckers and radiation detectors at ports. DHS has consolidated eight payroll providers into one system, and 22 human resources offices into seven. And there has not been another terrorist attack. But some of the department’s strongest supporters are disgusted by what it has achieved with its $40 billion annual budget. Rep. William M. “Mac” Thornberry (R-Tex.), who proposed a new department even before Sept. 11, said he was warned by several top CEOs that the mega-merger would require quick and decisive leadership. DHS, he said, never got it.

Hardening cockpit doors–something the FAA could have mandated within a week after 9/11–is a pretty meager “best of” outcome for DHS. And payroll consolidation and such are all well and good but, again, hardly worth the money spent.

The article reminds us, too, that the Bush administration opposed the creation of DHS from the start, correctly arguing that it was no magic elixir, but got dragged into it kicking and screaming by Congress–notably Senator Joe Lieberman. Still, once they got on board, the administration did not exert sufficient pressure to do the job right:

Why not include the Federal Aviation Administration? Or the Drug Enforcement Administration? Falkenrath and Lawlor wanted to move the FBI, which was responsible for investigating threats to the homeland. But it became clear that politics would also shape the department. Card and other principals swiftly vetoed the transfer of the FBI as a non-starter. Rice scoffed that it would make the department look like the German Interior Ministry.

But everyone agreed to move the border agencies that Ridge had tried to merge earlier. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was definitely in as well. Card raised the idea of taking the National Guard from the Pentagon, but as Falkenrath recalled, “we just couldn’t figure out how to make it work.”

Some of the decisions were almost random. Falkenrath thought it would be nice to give the new department a research lab that could bring cutting-edge research to homeland security problems. He called up a friend and asked which of the three Department of Energy labs would work. “He goes, ‘Livermore.’ And I’m like, ‘All right. See you later.’ Click,” Falkenrath told historians from the Naval Postgraduate School. He did not realize that he had just decided to give the new department a thermonuclear weapon simulator, among other highly sensitive assets of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.


Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to keep a handful of offices that were supposed to go to DHS, including the National Disaster Medical System and the national drug stockpile. “Make sure this doesn’t happen!” he instructed Jerome M. Hauer, one of his assistant secretaries.

Frankly, without the chief counterterrorism assets of the government, notably the FBI and much of the intelligence community–under the DHS umbrella, there was simply no point in creating the Department. If the DHS secretary still had to go hat in hand to coordinate cooperation from those agencies, we might as well have kept him at “tsar” status.

The plan had been put together with such speed and secrecy that after its release angry officials had to explain to the White House how their agencies really worked. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was able to beat back the total transfer of Livermore after it became clear the Gang of Five had little idea what the lab did. A similar battle unfolded over the Department of Energy’s radiological detection teams, which were supposed to be folded in with FEMA. The White House had not realized that the teams consisted of employees with regular jobs who mobilized only during emergencies.

The one Cabinet official who willingly surrendered turf was Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill, who angered some of his aides by giving up three prized agencies. But O’Neill was skeptical as well. “It was never clear there was a vision of what homeland security ought to mean,” he recalled. And many colleagues were similarly dubious. “We all expected an ineffectual behemoth,” said a close aide to a Cabinet member, “and that’s what we got.”

Like much of the domestic response to the 9/11 attacks, the creation of DHS was a feel-good response to give the illusion to the public that their leaders were “doing something” to protect them. That’s an understandable instinct from elected officials. Unfortunately, it is an expensive and unproductive one.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ken says:

    Having recently been with an organization that did precisely the same thing, I cringe at this. If the executive leadership is worried about color schemes and typefaces, they’re lost.

    This happens when those in charge have no idea on what to do so they hire ‘consultants’ to tell them what needs to be done. Consultants usually give advice appropriate to the abilities of the charactors who hired them, hence color schemes and branding instead of results.

  2. DC Loser says:

    My organization’s leadership is in love with the latest management fad, Six-sigma. Sigh.

  3. RA says:

    HLS will not be undone because their executives are picking uniforms. It will be undone by the ACLU and the American hating press (NYT, WAPO, ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC et al). The Democrats will ensure these terrorist protecting Americans get their way.

  4. Herb says:

    DC Loser:

    Six Sigma is just a way for management to bypass the responsibility they have to their customers, employees and stock holders. With a sex sigme program, management can successfully run their company into the ground and they usually do.

    The DHS is just one more giant bureaucracy that our Glorious Congress has created to give them someone else to blame for their failures. Now that we have DHS, there will be no getting rid of it.

  5. Jonk says:

    If the DHS has gotten the FBI and the NG folded into it, we would be golden, but the current structure lacks the necessary muscle to accomplish true security and prevention.

    It needs another reworking and a visionary at the helm, and (not likely) cooperation from other agencies to make it really work. Otherwise, it is just another over-bloated bureaucracy.

  6. Overbloated bureaucracies are my specialty.

    There’s something useful about consolidating domestic security functions in one department, but the way they went about it was so completely ass-backwards that it’s going to be years, still, before we get any serious results out of this department.

  7. Herb says:

    I don’t see anyone commenting on the major role Congress played in the creation of DHS. The effectiveness of DHS rest solely on those who created the department and therefors must accept responsibility for its failure to date.

    It amaizes me to think that Congress, who created DHS is now got their nose into Intelligence, The Patroit Act, The NSA and other programs designed to provide securty in the US. With the DHS fiasco, do you really want them to have their noses in the running and operation of these agencies? Not me, I don’t trust Congress to do anything right.

    About the only any of those in the House and Senate think of is, “Promotion of their political ambitions”

  8. anjin-san says:

    So big bad Joe Lieberman forced Bush to form the DHS? LOL, the no-responsibility administration marches on…