Victor Comras at The Counterterrorism Blog links to a letter sent by Comptroller General David Walker to Congressional leaders in November 2006 which outlines areas of oversight that Congress should take up in the new year. It is in the area homeland security that Mr. Comras gives us some keys to the unfinished business of Congress and the Bush Administration that needs to be addressed now more than 5 years after 9/11.
Actually, when one considers the overwhelming domestic security challenges facing the government in the aftermath of 9/11, Congress and the Administration have made astonishing progress in a relatively short period of time in some areas. But in other areas, there has been an equally astonishing lack of concern and focus that has homeland security experts shaking their heads in wonder that terrorists haven’t exploited these weaknesses.
Some of the targets of oversight include:
(1) the effective integration and transformation of the Department of Homeland Security, (2) ensuring a strategic and integrated approach to prepare for, respond to, recover, and rebuild from catastrophic events, (3) transforming and strengthening our national intelligence community, (4) enhancing border security, (5) ensuring the safety and security of all modes of transportation, (6) strengthening efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their delivery systems, (7) enhanced computer security, and (8) otherwise ensuring the effectiveness and coordination of U.S. international counterterrorism efforts. Further congressional oversight and action are also required, the Comptrollerâ€™s letter indicates, to improve the overall US image overseas.
Perhaps the most important area for DHS is the effective integration and transformation of the department. Still a relatively new agency, DHS is suffering from indigestion, having gobbled up 22 federal departments in 2003 with various responsibilities in the homeland security area. The GAO has found numerous problems with the agencies’ attempt to integrate these various bureaus and departments into a seamless whole as well as inter-departmental squabbling over the setting of priorities.
For the former, this is something that will take time as with any large department made up of so many formerly semi-independent offices which is thrust into existence. Organizational charts (and the inevitable turf battles that accompany them) have to be drawn up and resolved and personnel adjustments made.
As for the latter, the setting of priorities is clearly management’s responsibility. And the fact that we are still having difficulties in this regard is a direct reflection on the job that Director Michael Chertoff is doing as head of DHS.
I don’t envy Mr. Chertoff his job or the enormous responsibilities that job entails. However, these management problems date back more than 2 years. And the idea that we are still experiencing some of the same problems this far down the road does not reflect well on Mr. Chertoff’s leadership or management abilities. From the GAO letter, these are areas of oversight they recommend regarding the management of DHS:
â€¢ Evaluate the progress of DHS and its components in strategic planning, particularly whether strategic plans conform to best practices and link performance goals to resource requirements.
â€¢ Assess the progress of DHS in developing and integrating key management functionsâ€”financial, acquisition, information, and human capitalâ€”across its components.
â€¢ Review the progress of DHS and its components in performing risk assessmentsâ€”particularly in the mission areas like border and transportation security and critical infrastructure protectionâ€”as part of a risk management approach to the allocation of resources.
â€¢ Examine the progress of DHS and its components in improving partnering with other federal, state and local governments, and private entities in the fulfillment of its homeland security and non-homeland security missions.
Comras describes it a little less clinically:
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been given a front-and-center role in combating terrorism and protecting us at home. It was charged by Congress in 2003 with digesting some 22 agencies into one department with the objective of enhancing our overall domestic security. But, the GAO has found some serious shortfalls in the integration of these agencies and in the ability of the new Department to set its priorities, particularly in the area of risk assessment and security planning. It has also expressed concern with the continuing lack of internal accountability and oversight. Border security, transportation security and critical infrastructure protection remain critical areas requiring increased Congressional oversight, the Comptroller General says.
This sounds like a department with serious management flaws – especially relating to “internal accountability and oversight.” All of this is a direct reflection on Chertoff and his apparrent inability to extend his influence over the entire agency. And is there anything more important to a homeland security department than “risk assessment and security planning?” If we’re having problems in those areas, it would seem that a good question to be asked by a Congressman at an oversight hearing might be “What the hell do we have a DHS for if you guys can’t get your act together in deciding what part of the homeland is at most risk and what the hell should we be doing about fixing it?”
Chertoff has received high marks for his relatively good relations with Congress and his candor in discussing some of these problems. But I think if I had to choose, I’d rather have a bastard that every Congresscritter hates but who knows what has to be protected first and has a good idea of how to go about doing it.
Given the choice, which would you take?
Another troubling area that the GAO wants more congressional oversight on is in the planning for dealing with the recovery from a catastrophic attack. This is especially important in light of the news from Canada that a “dirty bomb” would appear to be the most likely WMD attack on the horizon and that terrorists are fully capable of acquiring the materials and initiating such an attack:
â€œThe technical capability required to construct and use a simple RDD [radiological dispersal device] is practically trivial, compared to that of a nuclear explosive device or even most chemical or biological weapons,â€ the CSIS study says.
A homemade radiological weapon could consist of a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material commonly found at universities, medical and research laboratories or industrial sites.
Several isotopes used in applications including cancer treatment and industrial radiography have been identified as possible sources. However, CSIS notes, much would depend on the material’s half-life, the amount of radioactivity present, the portability of the source and the ease with which it could be dispersed.
Experts say such an explosion, while claiming few initial casualties, could spread radiation over a wide area, contaminating several city blocks, sowing panic and wreaking economic havoc.
Indeed, imagine an RDD set off in mid town Manhattan. Depending on the wind and the size of the explosion, several square blocks of the most expensive and important real estate in the world would be unusable for many months as NEST (Nuclear Emergency Support Team) personnel fanned out over the affected area and went about the long and arduous task of removing enough of the radioactive material so that people could return and business could get back to normal. While the number of deaths from the initial blast might be relatively small, many hundreds could be sickened and die while several thousand would be at a much higher risk for cancer down the road.
And while most of the economic activity that normally occurs in the area affected would resume from other locations, there is no doubt that the psychological effect on our people and the markets would be profound.
Again, it is unsettling that this remains a priority that is in need of oversight because it hasn’t been dealt with properly or that plans are incomplete.
Another area that the GAO points to the need for oversight is border security. Now I don’t care who is running DHS, this is a matter that absolutely must be addressed by Congress and the Administration. And the fact that both branches of government insist on doing a Kabuki dance regarding illegal immigration while playing russian roulette with our border control policies is unconscionable.
I understand the political realities of battling over the Hispanic vote and why no one wants to offend that rapidly growing demographic. But this is suicidal. Given the ease with which our border can be violated and illegals escape detection, one has to wonder not if terrorists are in this country already, planning the next attack but how many terrorists might actually be here.
Some recognition by both Congress and the White House that the United States is a sovereign country with recognizable, defensible borders will have to be forthcoming before we can even begin to address the problem. And while I don’t believe a fence would help that much, surely a massive increase in border control personnel would seem to be in order along with the will to enforce the law by jailing employers who hire illegals.
This should be an absolute minimum. There’s much more we can do, of course, in determining visa reforms and other bureaucratic initiatives that will keep terrorists from coming here legally. But it starts at the border and it starts with enforcing the law. That much, we can demand of our representatives.
There’s more for Congress to look at – port security being among the items not mentioned in the GAO letter. And I’d like more emphasis placed on securing “softer” targets like chemical and power plants. What’s more, does anyone doubt that our transportation security efforts need a drastic overhaul? The point is, we have a long way to go before we can consider the job of homeland security being competently addressed.
So far, I would give the Administration a D+ for their homeland security efforts and the Republican Congress an F. Let’s hope the Democrats will give homeland security the attention and, more importantly, the funds it deserves.