Why We Should Eliminate the Department of Homeland Security

Let's dismantle the Frankenstein monster and divide its responsibilities more effectively.



After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack, President George W. Bush rightly resisted Congress' urge to create a new federal department charged with the homeland security mission. Bush believed the federal government could protect America with a strong homeland security council managed by the White House, similar to the National Security Council. Following relentless pressure, he acquiesced and the federal government gave birth to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on March 1, 2003.

The new department largely consists of agencies and offices pulled from other existing cabinet departments. After twelve years of mediocre-to-poor operations and countless scandals, it is clear President Bush's initial instinct was right. The core functions overseen by DHS can be managed more effectively elsewhere, especially where territorial battles undermine operational efficacy.

It is time to eliminate DHS and put the various components where they are a better fit. Eliminating DHS would result in annual fiscal savings of more than $2.5 billion, with 4,000 fewer employees. Those reductions, however, only represent part of the rationale for eliminating DHS. The other reasons to do so are that DHS is riddled with performance inefficiencies and that its existence creates inefficiencies in other federal entities due to the need to coordinate across organizational boundaries. America can't afford more of the same as terrorist threats reemerge.

With a new President getting elected in a year-and-a-half, starting this discussion now hopefully will spur proponents and opponents to enter the fray, and help presidential candidates to think about how they might more efficiently and effectively protect America during their time in office.

I spent nearly two and a half years at DHS where I first oversaw the terrorism grant, training, and exercise programs for state and local governments under Secretary Tom Ridge. When Michael Chertoff took over, I became the Counselor to the Deputy Secretary on policy and operational issues. My time included the response to Hurricane Katrina. In the nine years since I left DHS, I likely have written more on DHS than just about anyone, including a book, Homeland Security and Federalism: Protecting America from Outside the Beltway.

It goes without saying that I observed up-close the dysfunction, turf battles, and inherent limitations in an entity that does so much. These problems are exacerbated due to the fact that, in many cases, the activities DHS engages in require enormous coordination with entities embedded in other federal departments.

For example, the Transportation Security Administration must continually coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) given the overlap among their responsibilities. By moving the non-air components to DOT and the air components to the FAA, decisions would be made more quickly and without the turf battles between department heads.

Similarly, with the creation of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas' Security Affairs, having the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) outside of the U.S. Department of Defense is nonsensical. Syncing the four military branches that focus on our external threats with the military branch that secures our domestic waterways will enable unified command and control capabilities and streamlined support systems.

Two entities within DHS that would align better elsewhere are U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) and its Ombudsman. USCIS's functions are closely associated with the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs (BCA). A quick look at their respective mission statements shows how similar the two entities are. The mission of USCIS is:

USCIS will secure America's promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system.

The mission of BCA is:

The mission of the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) is to protect the lives and interests of American citizens abroad and to strengthen the security of United States borders through the vigilant adjudication of visas and passports. CA contributes significantly to the USG goal of promoting international exchange and understanding. Our vision is to help American citizens engage the world. The Bureau issues the travel documents that allow Americans to travel the globe and lawful immigrants and visitors to travel to America and provides essential cycle of life services to American citizens overseas.

With such similar missions, what efficiencies and effectiveness measures are gained by having these entities in separate departments? BCA's more extensive mission easily could absorb USCIS's complementary functions.

A final example is the domestic federal law enforcement functions within U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Those two entities consistently must coordinate with numerous elements at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), including: the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives; and the U.S. Attorneys. By having those entities under a separate cabinet official, the opportunity for turf battles and arbitrage are heightened.

Equally problematic is the multi-headed hydra faced by state and local law enforcement. With a large portion of state and local terrorism funding residing at DHS and ICE's existence in the department, state and local law enforcement must contend with multiple intelligence entities (DHS' weak fusion centers, DOJ's Joint Terrorism Task Forces, and the FBI's Field Intelligence Groups), coordinating bodies, and funding offices. This fragmentation only ensures that key items will fall through the cracks between these departments, whose personnel spend far too much time fighting each other for primacy than they should. Our enemies couldn't ask for a more fertile environment within which to attack us.

During my time at DHS, I unfortunately spent too much time fending off fiefdom building efforts by Michael Brown and his staff at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over the $3.5 billion terrorism grant programs that I ran and Brown wanted. During the transition from Secretary Ridge to Secretary Chertoff, Brown and I engaged in a running debate over whether preparedness functions should reside outside or inside of FEMA. I won the debate when Secretary Chertoff keep the terrorism preparedness functions outside of FEMA.

At the time, I focused on the importance of protecting terrorism preparedness operations from the constant operational natural disaster response and recovery tempo of FEMA. I made the case that terrorism preparedness operations tended to wither on the vine because FEMA needed to divert resources to ensure successful responses to natural disasters. With the ever-increasing natural disaster declarations coming out of FEMA since 1993, I had real concerns in our post-9/11 environment that terrorism would play second fiddle to the nationalization of natural disasters.

In the congressional actions after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA finally got the terrorism preparedness functions it had long sought. Though it's hard to admit, I have to concede that combining the preparedness, response, and recovery elements in FEMA hasn't resulted in terrorism preparedness getting weakened. That doesn't mean it has improved either. Much of FEMA's recent success is due to the excellent leadership of FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate combined with the limited number of major natural disasters during the Obama Administration. The experience of the FEMA Administrator is clearly critical to its operational success.

In fact, given how often the FEMA Administrator interacts with the President, creating a layer of secretarial management between the two makes little sense. Having the FEMA Administrator report, instead, directly to the president is especially important because it simply reflects the reality of what happens anyway when a major natural disaster strike America. FEMA should once again become a stand-along agency. That said, the terrorism-related grants, training, and exercise programs should revert back to DOJ, thereby strengthening the connection among domestic terrorism entities in federal, state, and local governments.

As for the U.S. Secret Service, its main mission is:

to ensure the security of our President, our Vice President, their families, the White House, the Vice President's Residence, national and visiting world leaders, former Presidents, and events of national significance. The Secret Service also protects the integrity of our currency and investigates crimes against our national financial system committed by criminals around the world and in cyberspace.

Given that very specific mission, the Director should report directly to the person his agency is charged with protecting. Perhaps the scandals and failures of the last few years are due to the agency's lost standing incumbent with being placed in the bowels of a department. It is hard to think that reporting directly to the president will not up the accountability level.

Beyond the fiscal savings of eliminating inefficient and, at times, ineffective layers of management, operations should improve. Things certainly couldn't get worse. As DHS Inspector General and U.S. Government Accountability Office reports over the last twelve years unequivocally demonstrate, DHS has not been a model of success. To boot, surveys of personnel consistently show that DHS employees have the lowest morale in the federal government.

As the saying goes, when you find yourself in a hole, it is wise to stop digging. Good intentions led to creating a new cabinet department with 180,000 employees and a nearly $38 billion budget that has ballooned to 240,000 employees and a $61 billion budget. Those increases represent a 33 percent jump in employees and a 61 percent budgetary explosion in just 12 years. More people and money did not result in better outcomes.

My proposed reorganization may not be correct on all counts, but it would be better than the status quo. Spending another decade allowing a department to grow even larger while it continues to get weak results will only ensure it becomes yet another permanent, and ineffective, federal bureaucracy. We can and should do better. President Bush instinctively had it right. It's now time we fix what politics got wrong.