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U.S.: Analysts Question Plans For New Homeland Security Department

  • Andrew Tully

Shortly after 11 September, U.S. President George W. Bush announced the creation of the Office of Homeland Security, a relatively small group of people in the White House whose job is to coordinate America's domestic fight against international terrorism. At the time, some members of Congress said Bush should have created a new, full-fledged cabinet department to address so pressing a problem. Last week, Bush announced plans to do just that. Many members of the Senate and House of Representatives are welcoming the proposal, but some independent analysts say this massive effort may not be the best way to keep Americans safe.

Washington, 10 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has proposed a hugely ambitious reorganization of the U.S. government that is intended to sharpen its focus on protecting the country from further terrorist attacks.

In a brief address to the country on 6 June, Bush said his plan would put more than 20 federal agencies, programs, and research facilities under a new cabinet department called the Department of Homeland Security.

He made the announcement as Congress has been investigating whether the U.S. government last year missed opportunities to prevent or at least disrupt the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

In his address, Bush acknowledged those investigations, but he said it is now time to look proactively at protecting the American people in the future. "We need to know when warnings were missed or signs unheeded, not to point the finger of blame, but to make sure we correct any problems and prevent them from happening again. Based on everything I've seen, I do not believe anyone could have prevented the horror of 11 September," Bush said.

The Office of Homeland Security would draw nearly 170,000 employees and $37.5 billion in budget authority from existing federal agencies such as the Customs Service, the Coast Guard, and even the Department of Agriculture. Its aim is to keep dangerous people and cargo out of the United States, and to protect the country's infrastructure, from its water reservoirs to its crops and livestock.

One part of the new department would be devoted to analyzing information about potential terrorist threats more efficiently. In his speech last week, Bush said the new department "will review intelligence and law-enforcement information from all agencies of government and produce a single daily picture of threats against our homeland."

Bush's proposal must be approved by Congress, and many members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives already have expressed support. But some independent analysts have expressed concern about different aspects of the plan, from the way the department would deal with intelligence to the very concept of initiating so grand a reorganization.

Anna Nelson, for example, notes that, although the creation of a Department of Homeland Security would affect many federal agencies, it would not affect the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The FBI is responsible only for domestic intelligence, while the CIA is restricted to gathering intelligence overseas.

Nelson, a professor of history at American University in Washington, was a member of the Assassination Records Review Board, which was formed in 1994 to gather all relevant records relating to the 1963 assassination of former President John F. Kennedy.

During that process, Nelson said, members of the board frequently expressed astonishment at how little the FBI and the CIA have cooperated over the years, even during times of crisis. She told RFE/RL the proposed creation of a Department of Homeland Security does nothing to improve this situation. "You're dealing with two cultures that thrive on secrecy. They don't even tell people within the organizations what they're going to do," Nelson said.

As a result, Nelson said, she does not expect intelligence analysis to be any better under the proposed agency than it is now. And she said the blame for this lies with President Bush, who designed the new department in complete privacy while consulting with only four other people: White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, and Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr.

"The president is not setting a very good precedent," Nelson said. "He created this department with four people advising him. He himself is creating a culture of secrecy around the White House."

Leon Fuerth agrees with Nelson that the FBI and the CIA have historically guarded their intelligence too closely. Fuerth was national security adviser to Al Gore when he was vice president under Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton. Fuerth is now a professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington.

But Fuerth told RFE/RL that even if the proposed Department of Homeland Security could persuade the FBI and the CIA to work together more effectively, the very idea of creating the new cabinet agency could in itself interfere with protecting the country properly for years.

If Congress acts quickly to approve the new department, it should begin operations by the beginning of next year. But according to Fuerth, it takes time for such establishments to begin to do their jobs properly. Their early years, he said, are too often characterized by what he called "diminished efficiency and increased confusion."

"Part of the bad news here is: In the short to midterm, this isn't going to do very much to improve the nation's ability to handle the problems it's facing," Fuerth said.

Another analyst said he wonders whether the new department will ever be able to function properly. James Lindsay specializes in U.S. foreign policy and national security issues at the Brookings Institution, a policy research center in Washington.

Lindsay told RFE/RL that some parts of the government reorganization look promising. But he said Bush and Congress may be merely giving in to political expediency by proposing, then approving, the Department of Homeland Security, without realizing how difficult it will be to make it work.

"The easiest thing to do is to propose it. The second-easiest thing to do is to enact the legislation to make it happen. The hardest thing to do is to get it done. I think there's some very real dangers here that everybody will invest all their emotional energy in getting a bill passed, and relatively little emotional energy into making sure that reform actually happens," Lindsay said.

According to Lindsay, the U.S. federal government has a poor record of combining parts of several agencies into one new department. He cited the Department of Energy, which former President Richard Nixon created a quarter-century ago out of components taken from other government offices.

Lindsay said that department is still fragmented -- he used the term "polyglot," or multilingual -- because of the rivalries that have persisted within the agency since its creation. Given the diverse agencies that would contribute to the Department of Homeland Security, he said, this agency can be expected to fare no better.