U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Keeping America safe or costing America too much?

Posted Sept. 08, 2011, at 12:13 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 08, 2011, at 11:57 p.m.

As the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Susan Collins’ top concern is keeping Americans safe from terrorism. As a native of Caribou, just miles from the Canadian border, she is well aware that increased security must not come at the expense of Americans’ long-treasured personal liberty.

“Americans are outraged when a young child or an extremely elderly person goes through secondary screening and [is seen] being patted down at an airport,” Collins said in a recent interview. “They also are outraged, and reasonably so, when a young man, as happened recently, traveled across the United States with an ID that was not a government-issued ID and a boarding pass that didn’t even have his name on it.”

“Our goal has to be to let our friends in and keep our enemies out, and it’s a lot easier to say that than to do it,” she said.

One of the most tangible consequences of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, a sprawling federal agency with a mission of keeping our enemies out.

Opinions about the department, under which 22 federal agencies were consolidated in response to the terrorist attacks, are wide-ranging and passionate. Some say it is a haven of information sharing, where the dots have been connected to up-end terrorist plots such as the one to bomb the New York City subways. Others see it a massive waste of taxpayer money that has not made America measurably safer than it was 10 years ago.

“The creation of [the Department of Homeland Security] was the largest reorganization of the federal government in half a century, so that in and of itself is quite remarkable,” Peter Andreas, a professor with Brown University‘s Watson Institute for International Studies, said recently. “But the creation of DHS also changed the very way we talk — the once obscure term ‘homeland security’ is now part of our everyday discourse.”

Collins became chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee shortly after the attacks; it added homeland security to its name and oversight in 2005. In 2004, she co-authored a slate of intelligence reforms alongside Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman. The legislation aimed to ensure that the newly created Department of Homeland Security didn’t become just another bureaucratic black hole.

She said the Department of Homeland Security was created as a place where walls between traditionally secretive federal agencies could be broken down, where swapping notes on suspicious individuals and groups was to be encouraged.

“There were more than 20 agencies involved in some aspect of homeland security, but there was no one responsible for being the quarterback,” Collins said.

She said in the months before the 9/11 attacks, “dots were not connected and information was not shared” between agencies that had pieces of intelligence on the hijackers, who flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Another hijacked plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

“Had that information been shared, had an agency that had a little bit of information about [hijacker] Mohamed Atta shared it with the border patrol or another agency, it’s possible — although maybe not likely — the plot would have been discovered and thwarted before the terrorists could pull it off,” Collins said. “What is different now is that we have a coordinated department that brings together all the personnel and all the agencies involved with homeland security.”

Among the more prominent organizations folded into the Department of Homeland Security were the U.S. Customs Service, the Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Jeffrey Smith, a former general counsel for the Central Intelligence Agency and member of CIA Director Leon Panetta’s external advisory board, served on the Markle Foundation’s Task Force on National Security.

Smith argued the culture change in federal intelligence groups resulting, in part, from the establishment of DHS allowed for the information sharing between the CIA and Pentagon used in tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden. The department itself, he said, played a key role in snuffing out a 2009 al-Qaida plot to detonate a bomb in the heavily traveled New York City subways, in which Najibullah Zazi was arrested in Denver after learning police were on his trail in the Big Apple.

But even the department’s supporters acknowledge there’s still work to be done.

On Christmas Day in 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab managed to get on board an international flight to Detroit with plastic explosives hidden in his underwear before the bomb malfunctioned and he was detained. More than two months earlier, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas, killing 13 people and wounding 30 others.

“There were loads of warning signs and lots of red flags, but information was not shared between the FBI and Army,” Collins said of the Fort Hood shootings. “The Army itself ignored many warning signals that Maj. Hasan had become increasingly radicalized. Another example of a failure, where, frankly, we were just lucky, was the Christmas Day bomber, Abdulmutallab. In this case, information that his own father brought to the attention of American officials should have resulted in his being listed on the no-fly list, but that didn’t happen.

“We’ve seen some real successes where information’s been shared and it has resulted in plots being thwarted, and then we’ve seen information not being shared and where, but for good fortune, there could have been a serious attack on our country,” she continued.

Collins said the Department of Homeland Security and the associated congressional committees offer a framework within which valuable lessons about changing threats to America can be learned and disseminated. The senator said the arrest this summer of Naser Jason Abdo, a 21-year-old Army soldier accused of scheming another attack on Fort Hood, came because of that framework.

“As a result [of increased information sharing, Abdo] was on the FBI’s watch list, on the Army’s investigative unit’s radar screen, and before he could carry out a plot or an attack similar to Maj. Hasan’s, he was arrested. That was a direct result from the lessons learned in the Maj. Hasan case,” Collins said.

David Rittgers, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., said he feels the Department of Homeland Security, with an annual budget of nearly $100 billion and more than 200,000 employees, was created as an overreaction to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The department, which has doled out about $35 billion in grants to state and local emergency response groups since 9/11, has become a “pork barrel” pipeline to organizations that never before relied on federal “handouts” to do their work, Rittgers argued.

“We spend a lot of money under the rubric of homeland security,” he said. “It’s like wasteful defense spending on steroids. Not every community has a military base or fighter jet factory [that can benefit from defense spending], but every community has police and fire departments that can receive this increased federal grant money and, in a sense, become dependent on federal grant money.”

Rittgers said the department’s Urban Area Security Initiative grants initially were set aside to help first responders in the seven most likely urban targets of terrorist attacks in America, but the list of qualified municipalities swelled to 64 after members of Congress began fighting for the inclusion of their home cities.

“It’s hard to think of a more local concern than fighting fires,” Rittgers said. “The local government should plug the potholes, run the courts and fight the fires, and yet, we’re spending a lot of federal money to fight fires. The rate of fires hasn’t changed. The rate of injuries related to fires hasn’t changed. These grants are basically just excuses to throw money at different constituencies, but there are no results to show for them.”

The fiscal oversight of DHS also came under fire in 2006 when a congressional audit found that department employees ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars on federal credit cards for items such as iPods and a home beer-brewing kit. Responding to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA, working under the oversight of DHS, lost laptops, GPS units, printers and boats costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, investigators reportedly determined at the time.

Additional controversies surrounding aspects of DHS relate to privacy concerns. Complaints were lodged about airport security measures being too intrusive, as well as the opening of international mail by department agents.

In a report issued by the Bipartisan Policy Center last week evaluating the progress of homeland security initiatives recommended seven years ago by the 9/11 Commission, the center called for the development of a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

Collins said, “the government is constantly trying to strike the right balance” between protecting the borders of America and protecting the privacy of Americans.

“Having grown up in a town that’s only 25 minutes from the Canadian border, I am constantly aware of that balance.”

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