Prior to September 2001, Americans were not as familiar with the phrase "homeland security" as they probably are now.
The term had been used for years in government reports, but if you asked me on Sept. 10, 2001, to say what "Homeland Security" is, I'd have probably guessed that it was a burglar alarm company in Nebraska.
The Department of Homeland Security was created in response to possibly the biggest and deadliest bureaucratic screw-up in American history. The federal government had information that could have allowed law enforcement to prevent the 9/11 attacks. The attack took place, anyway, in part because the federal government is vast and uncoordinated. That an FBI office in Phoenix, Ariz., knew a little sumthin'-sumthin' doesn't mean a CIA agent in Virginia knew it, too. Dots weren't connected. Puzzle pieces were not assembled. Memos titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States" were ignored by the White House, etc.
In September 2001, President Bush appointed then-governor of Pennsylvania Tom Ridge to head what was then called the Office of Homeland Security. One year later, it became the Department of Homeland Security. With a budget of $34 billion, DHS is the federal government's largest cabinet-level agency.
What's the DHS's mission?
"We will lead the unified national effort to secure America," says the agency's mission statement. "We will prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the nation. We will ensure safe and secure borders, welcome lawful immigrants and visitors, and promote the free-flow of commerce."
Has the DHS been successful? That's hard to say. Al-Qaeda has not attacked a target inside the United States since 9/11. That's a great thing. But is that the result of work by the DHS or some other government agency? Is it luck? Has al-Qaeda made another effort on the scale of 9/11? It's hard to say.
I can't think of any independent observers who rate the DHS's job performance well. In a recent podcast on the Council on Foreign Relations' website, homeland security analyst Stephen Flynn gave the government's homeland security a terrible report card.
Flynn gives port security a D+. That's up, he says, from an F, because in 2006 the government has finally bothered to develop a coherent plan for port security. Chemical-plant security gets a D-/F. According to Flynn, it took the feds five years to pass legislation and provide funding for chemical-plant security; when it did, it only allocated $10 million. That's $667 for each of the 15,000 chemical facilities that needs protecting.
Flynn also gives a D to the Homeland Security Department's PR operations. He singles out for criticism the DHS's idiotic color-coded threat system -- you know, the one that tells you to be scared but doesn't tell you what to be scared of or how to modify behavior to counter the alleged threats. Since the color-coded system was introduced in 2002, the nation has never been at less than the third- or second-highest threat advisory level.
The bad grades that Flynn dishes out are especially disheartening when you look at what he gave better grades to. For example, Flynn gives air defense a B. I know little about air defense, but I do know my confidence in U.S. air defense against terrorism was severely shaken after I read an AP story quoting Adm. Timothy Keating -- as commander of U.S. Northern Command, the man in charge of air defense -- admitting that he learned of the small plane crash last month in NYC that killed Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle from TV news. Said the AP story: "Keating said he ordered the fighters to be scrambled immediately after seeing information about the crash on television."
Sadly, the fact that Keating actually watches TV puts him several steps of ahead of other leaders in the homeland security biz. In 2005, the White House and DHS claimed they didn't realize that New Orleans' flood protection was breached after Katrina, even though several news outlets had reported it.
Most of the 1,500 Louisianians who died after Katrina were killed as a result of the federal government's poorly designed and poorly built flood walls. Protecting critical infrastructure from hurricanes and rescuing victims is part of DHS's job. Flynn gives disaster response a C-.
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