War Stories

Can This Department Be Saved?

How to secure homeland security.

Now that Congress has passed the Homeland Security Act—which combines 22 federal agencies, 165,000 government employees, and $35.5 billion of budget authority into a single Cabinet-level department—the question arises: At what point will we be able to tell whether this is a serious enterprise or, as Sen. Robert Byrd puts it, a game of “bureaucratic shuffleboard”?

For all the fun poked at the senator’s pompous Roman oratory, the odds stand in his favor. The history of mega-departments is not an encouraging one. The most obvious arguments for pessimism are the Department of Energy (which has done little to reduce our dependence on foreign oil) and the Department of Education (which has done even less to enlighten our children).

Yet even the Department of Defense, which underwent the most massive reorganization on record, took 14 years—from its creation in 1947 to Robert McNamara’s reign as secretary, starting in 1961—to come under any coherent civilian stewardship. And even then, it slipped back into chaos once the military chiefs figured out how to adapt McNamara’s method of control (the whiz-kid “science” of systems analysis) to their own ends. Not until 1986, with the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols DoD Reorganization Act, did the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff finally take command of the services and settle the war among the generals.

In 1981, I interviewed retired Gen. Maxwell Taylor—a former Army chief of staff and one of the more broadly educated generals of his time—and asked him if he thought the Marines were capable of carrying out some mission or other. Taylor, though quite infirm at that point, turned red and roared, “The Marines!? The Marines can’t do a goddamn thing!”

During Taylor’s heyday, in the 1950s and early ‘60s, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines hated each other at least as much as they hated the Soviets. Go look at Adm. Arleigh Burke’s papers at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Burke was the chief of Naval Operations, a gruff and canny officer who tape-recorded his conversations well ahead of his time. One set of transcripts, from August 1960, shows him talking angrily with Secretary of the Navy William Franke about the latest machinations by U.S. Air Force commanders. Burke seethes, “They’re smart and they’re ruthless. It’s the same way as the Communists. It’s exactly the same techniques. … They’re dishonest and they know it. They have no feeling at all that they are responsible for anything but the Air Force … and they will wreck the United States.” This conversation took place 13 years after the armed services had been formally reorganized into the Department of Defense.

Of course, Burke and his counterparts in the Air Force (who, declassified documents show, were saying pretty much the same things about the Navy) were warriors. It was only natural for them to plot wars, even among themselves, when no real wars were going on. But this instinct can be bred in non-martial and semi-martial agencies, as well. Take a large federal bureaucracy that has developed its own culture and rituals over many decades, tear it apart, stuff its denizens into a much larger bureaucracy, force them to compete for scraps of the same budgetary pie as the refugees from 21 other cultures—and, unless this hodgepodge is managed very shrewdly, the most mild-mannered civil servant can be transformed into a savage brawler in no time.

That risk must be weighed against the clear advantages of consolidating all these fiefdoms under one roof. Domestic security is carried out mainly by city, state, and regional authorities, and officials who work at those levels complain that they currently have to roam from one agency on port security to another on street security to another on technological innovations. They yearn for a single entity with the statutory authority to draft budgets, set priorities, issue standards, make decisions. They all use the same phrase for what they hope this new department will provide—”one-stop shopping.”

However, one-stop shopping doesn’t get you far if the shop has bare shelves and your credit card’s maxed out—which fairly sums up the situation with homeland security right now. Because Congress didn’t pass a Fiscal Year 2003 spending bill—and because President Bush deliberately avoided talk of money in his election-season campaigning for the new department—all the soon-to-be-merged agencies are operating on a continuing resolution, which means no new hires, and no new anything else, for at least the next few months.

But it’s by no means hopeless. Here are four modest suggestions for the Bush administration and the new department’s secretary if they hope to prove Sen. Byrd wrong.

1. Throw money at the problem. It is silly to pretend, as Bush once did, that a Homeland Security Department can thrive on a budget no greater than the combined expenditures of its 22 merging agencies. Security for ports and borders; equipment and training for police and fire departments; research, development, and procurement of advanced sensor technology; hardware for faster, more comprehensive data links—these things cost lots of money. Some officials estimate that three years from now, if the department has grown into something serious, its annual budget should be double or triple its current level of $35 billion (little of which currently goes for anti-terrorism, anyway). Earlier this month, Congress gave Bush the authority—if he wants it—to transfer $814 million from the missile defense program to anti-terrorist projects. Bush should take the bait.

His cherished missile defense would still be left with nearly $7 billion, twice as much as Ronald Reagan ever dreamed of spending on “Star Wars” in a more fantasy-drenched era—and Bush would send a powerful signal that he considers anti-terrorism an urgent business.

2. Appoint heavy-hitters. The undersecretaries of homeland security should be people with hair-raising credentials and experience, not just in emergency-management, but in law-enforcement and intelligence (in other words, not just in cleaning up disasters but in preventing them). If Bush appoints PAC-masters and coat-holders, then Byrd should be free to recite Cicero through as many filibusters as he desires.

3. Rip apart the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Walter Dean Burnham, the political scientist, once said that an incoming president should destroy a federal agency, just to show everybody that he can do it. The secretary of homeland security needs to demolish and rebuild the INS, not just to show he means business but because the whole incentive-structure deeply embedded in the history and culture of the INS has nothing to do with keeping clever bad guys out of the country.

4. Ban pork-barrels. The likeliest targets of a terrorist attack, and therefore the areas where the most homeland security money should be spent, are cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston. Yet Karl Rove and the Republican Congress are hardly keen to enrich the constituents of Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and Nancy Pelosi. During the Cold War, Georgia found itself with so many military bases not because of its nice weather but because it was home to Richard Russell, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. One cannot help but wonder if, in the war on terrorism, grave vulnerabilities will suddenly be discovered in Mississippi, Kentucky, Alaska, Oklahoma, and Iowa, the homes, respectively, of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Senate Whip Mitch McConnell, and a few of the newly empowered chairmen today.