Department of Homeland Security

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.

NEXT: Peter Suderman on Why the GOP Can't Win on Health Care

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  1. Dismantle a whole department?! Might as well move to Somalia!

    1. Heh heh. Dismantling DHS, to almost any other effect, is 99% of the battle. But I do have a few quibbles with Mr. Mayer.

      (1) Doesn’t countercounterfeit remain the primary use of Secret Service resources? Treasury should get them back, along with Customs. I think Mr. Mayer seems a little too fond of Justice in general here; and, while eliminating another “layer” of bureaucracy may seem pleasing in principle, I think that the next big executive reform should be to **reduce** the amount of government reporting directly to the White House, not increase it. Eisenhower’s warnings about the “Presidential Branch” and all that.

      (2) The proper reassignment of the TSA is the garbage bin. And the FAA itself needs dismantling, as a dual regulatory-promotion agency (ditto USDA, etc.).

      (3) Do not make the Coast Guard Admiral the Assistant Secretary of anything (a move especially baffling coming from someone who wants to move it to Defense)! The separation between military and civilian office is one of the most important traditions of our republic; we should avoid even the most superficial blurring of that sacred line. It’s bad enough that our presidents have started to salute back.

  2. Terrorism: “an unpreventable and rare occurrence that causes immediate and permanent loss of freedoms to the victims.”

    Homeland Security: “the agency which acts as a freedom denying tool of terrorists.”

  3. I spent nearly two and a half years at DHS where … I observed up-close the dysfunction, turf battles, and inherent limitations

    “Disgruntled employee!”

    1. That and he is a lawyer. So he thinks DOJ should be running everything. It never dawns on him that lawyers running things could ever be dysfunctional.

      1. Lawyers, by and large, have the administrative competence of Kevin Bacon in Animal House.

        1. Pretty much.

        2. Surely you’re not implying that standing in the middle of the street screaming “ALL IS WELL!!!” until being trampled to death isn’t an effective administrative technique…

  4. 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.

    Emphasis added. Name names, Matt, so those can be eliminated also.

    1. Friggin’ ALL of ’em, boyo. Friggin’ all of ’em.

      Of course, in some cases ineffectiveness is a blessing…….

  5. Dismantle the DHS?!?!
    Ahhhhh, a sweet dream scented with jasmine and lavender on a moutaintop under crisp blue skies amidst fluffy white clouds…

    1. Unicorns. You forgot unicorns.

      And rivers of chocolate.

  6. First, we should get rid of the TSA altogether. 9-11 was not a failure of aviation security. It was a failure of border security.

    Second, you can’t put the CBP and ICE back in justice. Justice shouldn’t be doing law enforcement in the first place. To the extent it has done it, it has done a horrible job as the FBI ran rough shod over CBP and the old INS and treated them like unimportant step children rather than the only legitimate federal law enforcement functions they were.

    Third, putting CIS with state sounds nice, except that they work with CBP and ICE more than they do with State. Sure, DOS decides who gets a VISA. But CIS decides who gets to stay in the country. Getting a tourist VISA from state isn’t the same thing as getting a PR VISA or refugee status from CIS. And appealing those statuses or revoking them once you have it is a function of ICE.

    Fourth FEMA, like TSA needs to be eliminated. It is not a federal function. USS should go back to Treasury.

    1. What does that leave? Take the FBI and strip it of all of its LEO powers except terrorism and government corruption and eliminate the BATF and DEA altogether. Take the remains of FBI, combine it with CPB and ICE and CIS into a actual federal law enforcement and border security agency. That way DOJ can be it is supposed to be which is the nation’s lawyers and jailors not its federal cops. And the federal law enforcement can concentrate on its actual job, protecting the borders and going after corrupt politicians and state officials where state and locals are unable.

      That would actually accomplish something. What this guy purposes would accomplish nothing except putting border control back under the thumb of DOJ and the Famous But Incompetents, which is a really bad idea.

      1. Better yet, delare all ATF employees outlaws, andhunt them over the borders.

      2. I’d throw in stripping federal agencies’ inspectors general of their general police authority. If they discover a criminal matter, then it should be forwarded to the FBI for investigation and the DOJ for prosecution. After that, the SWAT teams.

        And GSA security guards would be just that, security guards not police. Their authority would be limited to federal property and calling the local PD to handle a crime (vandalism, trespass, etc) just like they do for any other organization.

  7. 25 Things We Did As Kids That Would Get Our Asses Arrested Today…..sted-today

    Here’s part of the list:
    1. Riding in the back of an open pick-up truck with a bunch of other kids
    2. Leaving the house after breakfast and not returning until the streetlights came on, at which point, you raced home, ASAP so you didn’t get in trouble
    3. Eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the school cafeteria
    4. Riding your bike without a helmet
    5. Riding your bike with a buddy on the handlebars, and neither of you wearing helmets
    6. Drinking water from the hose in the yard
    7. Swimming in creeks, rivers, ponds, and lakes (or what they now call *cough* “wild swimming”)
    8. Climbing trees (One park cut the lower branches from a tree on the playground in case some stalwart child dared to climb them)
    9. Having snowball fights (and accidentally hitting someone you shouldn’t)
    10. Sledding without enough protective equipment to play a game in the NFL
    11. Carrying a pocket knife to school (or having a fishing tackle box with sharp things on school property)
    12. Camping
    13. Throwing rocks at snakes in the river

    1. Here’s the rest:

      14. Playing politically incorrect games like Cowboys and Indians
      15. Playing Cops and Robbers with *gasp* toy guns
      16. Pretending to shoot each other with sticks we imagined were guns
      17. Shooting an actual gun or a bow (with *gasp* sharp arrows) at a can on a log, accompanied by our parents who gave us pointers to improve our aim. Heck, there was even a marksmanship club at my high school
      18. Saying the words “gun” or “bang” or “pow pow” (there actually a freakin’ CODE about “playing with invisible guns”)
      19. Working for your pocket money well before your teen years
      20. Taking that money to the store and buying as much penny candy as you could afford, then eating it in one sitting
      21. Eating pop rocks candy and drinking soda, just to prove we were exempt from that urban legend that said our stomachs would explode
      22. Getting so dirty that your mom washed you off with the hose in the yard before letting you come into the house to have a shower
      23. Writing lines for being a jerk at school, either on the board or on paper
      24. Playing “dangerous” games like dodgeball, kickball, tag, whiffle ball, and red rover (The Health Department of New York issued a warning about the “significant risk of injury” from these games)
      25. Walking to school alone

      1. Don’t forget hiking in the woods for miles behind your house as I didi all the time with a knife.Also used to jump our bikes off ramps. No ‘safety gear’.

      2. Don’t forget hiking in the woods for miles behind your house as I didi all the time with a knife.Also used to jump our bikes off ramps. No ‘safety gear’.

        1. There was also a rock slide in one hollow down to a creek.

      3. Funny how many of those are “boy” things. Is it still OK to play with Easy-Bake ovens?

        1. With that hot lamp in there? Hell no! Someone might get burned!

        2. Easy-Bake Ovens were discontinued when they banned incandescent light bulbs.

    2. Don’t forget all the sexual harassment and animal cruelty stuff like scaring girls with frogs.

    3. I think the list of things you wouldn’t get arrested for today is probably shorter than the list of thing that will get you arrested.

  8. Having done 21 of the 25 things here, I would be serving some serious time today.

    1. And it didn’t get dark till after 9 last night–imagine, kids playing street hockey (yeah, Toronto, even in the summer) until 9 at night. And none of us were kidnapped, or robbed stores. What a fantasy world we lived in then.

      1. Speak for yourself. I personally was killed twice.

        And I still can’t talk about what happened when the gypsies took me.

  9. The other thing I would say is that none of these ideas are any good if they don’t start with an examination of what exactly the federal government should and should not be doing. Eliminating DHS is great and all. If the result of that is just reshuffling its functions to other departments rather than reducing the number of federal functions, you are just saying the whole thing would work if we just put the right people in charge. No it wouldn’t work. The problem is what we are expecting the federal government to do. DHS is just a symptom of that underlying problem.

    1. start with an examination of what exactly the federal government should and should not be doing.

      If only there were basic guidance about this. A “supreme law of the land”, if you will.

      1. I know. If only we had a supreme legal document that spelled that out or something. It is just so crazy it might work.

  10. Following relentless pressure, he acquiesced and the federal government gave birth to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on March 1, 2003.


    Eh, I don’t really remember it that way. From what I remember, Bush embraced a version of the DHS legislation when he figured out he could use it as a bludgeon in the 2002 midterm elections against Democrats who supported a different version.

    1. No. That was a TSA union spat. What drove the creation of DHS more than anything was the need on the part of the FBI and Intelligence community to avoid blame for 9-11 and stick INS with the blame. You see the problem wasn’t that the FBI and Intel community were listening to Bin Ladin’s phone and knew exactly who the hijackers were, knew they were dangerous, knew they had overstayed their VISAs yet never picked up the phone and called INS and told them to round them up and deport them. The problem was INS didn’t magically know to deport them over the thousands of other people who had overstayed their VISA. So INS was really at fault and the solution was to break it up and create DHS.

  11. IF we MUST have a federal law enforcement agency (although I wasn’t alive, my understanding was that many people thought that any federal law enforcement [read: FBI] was anathema to American principles), it should absolutely only deal with helping to coordinate local/state authorities to avoid criminals bouncing through jurisdictions.
    Of similar importance is eliminating all of the random agencies’ personal SWAT teams. How many people realize the Department of (re)Education has its own SWAT team? And who could possibly think that was necessary?

    1. How many people realize the Department of (re)Education has its own SWAT team? And who could possibly think that was necessary?

      Are you kidding, fleshy? Anyone who’s capable of truancy is capable of *anything*!

  12. So the mall cops I see riding around in tricked out DHS SUVs can go back to being mall cops?

    1. …or assembling wood chippers.

      1. Made from foreign and domestic parts. Assembled in the USA.

      2. Or testing them out…preferably with each other.

  13. The DHS can’t even get its act together to build its own headquarters (which could actually do quite a bit to make it function moderately better, instead of having agencies scattered in their former departments’ buildings). How exactly was it ever supposed to be competent at anything else?

    1. It would do less than you think. Building the Pentagon didn’t make the various services function. The problem is there is no Goldwater Nichols equivalent. The heads of the various agencies are Presidential appointees and can ignore anything from headquaters short of a direct order from the Secretary. So the headquarters is worthless and does nothing to coordinate and organize actions, which is its whole purpose.

  14. Anxiety fucks up culture. No fucking way government’s obsession with security doesn’t trickle down and intensify societal fears and phobias. Collective correctness and twilight-zone unease have entered the stratosphere.

    Mass insecurity is reflected through the electing of suited thugs with barred brains scribbling the fucking pen to any legislation that limits, disciplines, or imprisons the common man which is bizarre to me in the sense that the python of contemporary recoil is clearly eating its own ass.

    Extremes can be circuitous, though. Millennials paradoxically and wildly embrace technologies that ultimately exist to replace occupations with software and machines.

    1. There is a lot too that. A lot of what drives the stupid things that DHS does is anxiety on the part of its leaders to be seen as doing something so that they can avoid blame if there is another 9-11. It doesn’t matter if doing it makes any sense or reduces the risk. What matters is that it appears on the surface to do so and thus allows the people in charge to avoid blame if something happens by saying “we were doing everything we could”.

      The other problem is that anxiety encourages terrorism. Every time we freak out in a fit of mawkishness and axiety over some half assed plot like the Boston bombings, we are just telling our enemies that such things really hurt us. If we would remain calm and down play those events and send the message to the effect of “more people died on the Boston roads this spring than in this piss ant attack” participating in such attacks would not seem so glamorous to budding Islamic radicals.

      1. Completely agree. Schneier calls this ‘refusing to be terrified’.

  15. B-b-but… then who will protect us defenseless sheeple from TEH TERRORISTS!!!!!!1111!!!! Or do you want them to win? This is why libertarianism is so unfit for the modern world /statist asshole

  16. Following relentless pressure, he acquiesced


  17. Sorry- I can’t hack my way through that idiotic nonsense.
    “We should be destroying freedom more efficiently,” is all I hear.

  18. Riding your bike with a buddy on the handlebars, and neither of you wearing helmets

    As your buddy actively tries to dump you both by lurching and shifting his weight the wrong way when you turn.

  19. You just made the case for removing 90% of all federal agencies, even more. We all know incompetence doesn’t even create firings and budget cuts, much less nuking a whole agency. The ATF being there is proof enough.

  20. This will be the down fall to the greatest country on the planet. too many leaches think they are entitled to other peoples earnings. ?????

  21. OT Yeah Texas !!11!!1!!…

    “”I never thought that a young, African-American man from the projects could file a grievance against a powerful, white DA in Texas and win,” he said.”

    Follow the link and there’s a link to another Texas DA who went to jail for similar actions.

  22. Better yet eliminate the alphabet soup in DC

  23. 100% agree. Nothing makes the case like the TSA missing 95% of all the fake bombs smuggled through at airports! I’m sure they got 95% of all the nail clippers and water bottles, since that seems to be their main focus.

    I think the DHS was modeled after, seriously, the East German Stasi (Stat Sicherheit, or State Security) and is 100% unconstitutional. I’m watching for which Presidential Candidates suggest something similar.

    The airlines, for example, have a strong incentive to not allow airliners to be hacked or taken over (yes, I mean hacked, not hijacked, see the book “Methodical Illusion” on Amazon). If they just gave the stewardesses pepper spray and/or tazers, that would stop most any event the passengers didn’t stop.

    We have a US military that works, DHS is a multi-trillion dollar waste that we can’t afford that suppresses our rights, not enhances them.

  24. They perform unconstitutional and illegal acts.
    That is reason enough to abolish them.
    I knew this would happen when the stinking agency was established.
    They are the enemy of freedom.

  25. Instead of reassigning some of the responsibiltiies, lets examine each “realm” in turn and find out how it is assigned FedGov in the Constitution, and retain ONLY those which pass muster in that regard. Yes, its time to end DHS, but DHS are not the problem, they are a symptom. The disease is what needs curing, and that means limiting FedGov to ONLY those areas of functiin clearly assigned them in the Constitution.

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