It’s Up to Congress to Keep Homeland Security Focused

Posted June 3, 2003 at 3:14pm

Now that we’ve survived another Code Orange without a debilitating attack on the homeland, it is time to talk homeland security. But stay vigilant as you read on; we’re still at Code Yellow. [IMGCAP(1)]

So how are we doing with homeland security? There are lots of reasons to be concerned. The new Homeland Security Department is filled with turmoil. How could it not be? Pulling 170,000 employees from more than 20 separate and distinct departments, agencies and other entities together — including massive physical moves, coordinating information systems and new missions — is herculean.

Every serious reorganization, public or private, takes time and turmoil to pull off. After writing about some of these hazards a year ago — noting that, for some time, most of the employees of the new department would be at least as focused on job security as homeland security — I get periodic phone calls and e-mails from employees of the new department recounting the difficulties of changing bureaucratic cultures as they are trying to change phone numbers, offices and bosses.

It is not something designed to make me sleep better during times of Code Orange, Yellow or even chartreuse.

Then there is the fact that Congress has moved too slowly to reorganize itself to deal with the reality of this new department. True, there are new appropriations subcommittees. And the House has created a select committee to provide oversight, albeit without any legislative authority. But little will happen to provide the kind of tough, sustained serious oversight in this arena until there is a standing committee focused on the issue. And the Senate has not even moved to create a select committee, leaving all oversight and authorizations of the units of the new department fragmented and compartmentalized.

The problems the executive branch and Congress need to deal with in this area are huge. We need to make sure that the new focus on homeland security in areas such as the Coast Guard and the Animal and Plant Inspection Service does not obscure or obliterate the pre-existing missions of these agencies. What if the United States has a mad cow scare, as Canada now does? Will the Animal and Plant Inspection Service be able to focus its people and resources on this problem — probably not caused by any terrorists — the same as it would have before its primary focus became homeland security?

Then there are the funding headaches. Every Code Orange adds a new burden to state and local governments.

In a related vein are the problems for first responders — what to do if and when there is a serious attack. The Bush administration has been slow at freeing up the money Congress appropriated for the job, which most experts believe is woefully inadequate to begin with. While the Homeland Security Department has made the grant process a bit more accessible, it is still too complex and cumbersome.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who as ranking member of the Intelligence Committee has been a real leader in this area, building bipartisan support for reform, has pinpointed the gaps in funding for training, emergency management and planning, personnel and health and medical capability — not to mention in communications. She needs allies, inside and outside Congress, to overcome the bureaucratic imperative and White House lethargy.

We need a strong and aggressive Congressional presence in this area, stronger than we have seen. We need serious prodding to make sure that the new department does not get bogged down in bureaucratic battles and keeps its focus where it belongs.

Congress has to make sure that money is allocated for the improvement and coordination of computer systems and information sharing among the units of the department, and between the department and the intelligence agencies. While the administration has presumably created a coordinating mechanism among and between intelligence agencies, it is not at all clear that the division of labor will work, or the infighting and institutional jealousies, will be overcome. And we need a Congressional effort to make sure that in the process of sharing intelligence, civil liberties are not trampled.

We need quick movement to free up spectrum space for emergency purposes. Congress has to move expeditiously to deal with the roadblocks in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and get the channels between 60 and 69 available for emergency responders.

There are real threats out there. Al Qaeda is alive and trying to create new mayhem. We have 66,000 chemical and hazardous-materials plants in the United States, along with 2,800 power plants (more than 100 nuclear), 361 seaports and nearly 1,800 federal reservoirs along with thousands and thousands of municipal ones. The chemical and nuclear plants ought to be hard targets — guarded and fortified against an attack, and at least with serious surveillance capability to signal an alert if anything suspicious happens. Not so. Most are not protected at all.

According to journalist H.D.S. Greenway, in 2000, 211,000 ships (most carrying foreign flags) entered U.S. ports, containing 5.8 million 40-foot containers. About 2 percent were inspected.

Finding the money to protect the homeland, given ballooning deficits and rising demands in defense and entitlements, will be tough — but necessary. Making sure we allocate the resources effectively and keep our focus on the real problems will be even tougher.