Advisors, Czars and Councils: Organizing for Homeland Security

Advisors, Czars and Councils: Organizing for Homeland Security

Mini Teaser: The task of homeland security is too important to trust to schemes for organizational centralization.

by Author(s): Ivo DaalderI.M. Destler

Nine days after September 11, President George W. Bush announced that
the Federal government's effort to secure the American homeland
against future terrorist attacks would be led by a new, White
House-based Office of Homeland Security (OHS). He appointed his close
friend, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, to head the office. While
this step was widely welcomed, there has been a near-consensus among
Washington veterans that Ridge lacks the leverage necessary for the
job, even as a member of the White House staff with clear and direct
access to the President. "I fear that as an advisor who lacks a
statutory mandate, Senate confirmation, and budget authority, he will
not be as effective as we need him to be", Senator Joseph Lieberman
(D-CT) argued. "A homeland coordinator with only advisory authority
is not enough. We need a robust executive agency to carry out the
core functions of homeland defense." Lieberman and others have
accordingly introduced a number of proposals to rectify these
imperfections, and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director
Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr., recently told Congress that the
administration was open to proposals for re-organization.

Almost every proposal thus far seeks to fix the problem by bringing
widely dispersed authorities and agencies into a new central
structure. But centralization alone cannot be the main answer to this
formidable challenge. Currently, responsibility for preventing,
protecting against, and responding to a terrorist incident is spread
not only across the Executive Branch, but also across Federal, state
and local authorities. Moreover, the private sector also has a
critical role to play. It is simply not possible, nor is it
desirable, to bring all the major homeland security functions under a
single roof.

What is needed instead is leadership, coordination and mobilization
of the responsible agencies and their leaders--at the Federal, state
and local levels. That is precisely the task President Bush has
handed Governor Ridge. Given the number of agencies, interests and
people involved, it is a task of truly mammoth proportions. It
requires strong, personal support from the President, more than has
been evident in the first seven months of Ridge's tenure. Past
experiences in parallel coordinating efforts--for national security
and economic policy--provide valuable lessons on how Ridge might
accomplish the task. Within such a coordinating context, some
consolidation of functionally similar activities (for example,
dealing with border security) makes sense, as does making Ridge's
position statutory and subject to Senate confirmation. Enhancing his
authority over budgetary matters would make sense, as well. But on
their own, the structural reforms championed by many critics of the
current arrangement will be of little help, and could even undercut
Ridge's ability to influence the broad range of government activity
that he can never directly control.

Re-organization Would Help . . .

Prior to September 11, a succession of government commissions as well
as legislators argued that terrorism constituted a real threat to
U.S. security, but that the U.S. government did not give the threat
the priority it deserved. Consolidating homeland security functions,
they argued, would give it that priority, by creating what the
General Accounting Office called a "focal point." In an effort to
ensure that homeland security would be a White House priority most
proposals sought to place the new organization within the Executive
Office of the President.

Clearly, these advocates were on to something. Before terrorists
turned commercial jetliners into weapons of mass destruction and
killed 3,000 people on U.S. soil, homeland security was not a top
priority for the U.S. government. To be sure, successive presidents
had talked about the threat of terrorism. Bill Clinton frequently and
often publicly worried about a germ-weapons attack by terrorists on
U.S. territory. George W. Bush mentioned the threat of terrorism
during his campaign, and continued to talk about it once in office
(althoughoften as an argument for developing missile defenses).
Spending on counterterrorism activities also increased
significantly--from $6 billion in 1998 to well over $10 billion in
2001. Finally, with the appointment of Richard Clarke in 1998--in one
sense, Ridge's predecessor--as coordinator of counterterrorism, an
attempt was made to pull together the myriad agencies and interests
involved in preventing and responding to terrorist attacks.

Nevertheless, as of September 10, 2001--even with heightened
presidential interest, increased funding and improved
coordination--the terrorist threat had not moved anywhere near the
top of the White House agenda. Clarke, a Clinton-era holdover,
remained a senior director on the NSC staff, but reported to the
national security advisor, not to the president. Terrorism was still
just one concern among many. Although the various agencies all had
terrorism coordinators, other concerns dominated their agendas. For
the Pentagon, re-equipping the military to fight two major theater
wars simultaneously remained the priority. China, not Al-Qaeda, was
the rising threat, and ballistic missile attacks by rogue states, not
suicide bombers, were the immediate concern. Drugs, not dangerous
pathogens, were the targets of customs agents searching luggage and
cargo entering the United States. Consular and immigration officers
fretted about granting visas to potentially illegal immigrants rather
than students-cum-terrorists. The FBI focused on building criminal
indictments against terrorists who had committed acts of violence
against U.S. interests overseas, rather than tracking non-U.S.
nationals who might undertake terrorist acts on American soil. Other
priorities displaced the attention and resources that should have
been devoted to homeland security.

September 11 changed all that. Now, for all of these agencies, at
every level, the terrorist threat stands front and center. The
commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service, Robert C. Bonner, told the
New York Times that "terrorism is our highest priority, bar none.
Ninety-eight percent of my attention as commissioner of customs has
been devoted to that one issue." The INS, FBI and other key agencies
have been re-organized so as to make counterterrorism their top
concern. Priorities have shifted in agencies that have not been
re-organized--including even the Internal Revenue Service, which has
assigned some of its criminal investigators to assist in helping
determine how terrorist groups are funded.

There are other reasons to consider re-organizing homeland security
beyond the need to focus public attention; the key one is the fact
that responsibility for homeland security really is very widely
dispersed. According to the OMB, nearly seventy agencies spend money
on counterterrorist activities--and that excludes the Defense and
State Departments and the intelligence community. One organizational
chart of Federal government agencies involved in homeland security
contains 130 separate boxes. Even by more discriminating accounting
standards, anywhere between forty and fifty agencies are believed to
be involved in the effort--ranging from the departments of Defense,
Treasury, Justice, Transportation, Health and Human Services, and
Agriculture; to intelligence agencies like the Central Intelligence
Agency and National Security Agency; to law enforcement agencies like
the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service, the Drug
Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms;
to agencies monitoring points of entry into the United States like
the Border Control, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service and the
Immigration and Naturalization Service; to agencies responsible for
responding to an attack, like the Federal Emergency and Management
Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National
Guard Bureau and the Pentagon's soon-to-be-established Northern

This diffusion of responsibility is inherent in providing homeland
security because success depends on a multitude of unconnected
individuals making good decisions. It is an inherently decentralized
operation. A customs service agent sensed something amiss with a car
traveling from Canada to the United States in December 1999 and
discovered its trunk loaded with explosive materials designed to blow
up the Los Angeles International Airport. A flight instructor found
it suspicious that a student was interested only in steering a
commercial jetliner, not in taking off or landing, and then reported
his suspicion to locally-based Federal authorities (who tried in vain
to get FBI headquarters in Washington to take the matter seriously).
A firefighter yelled at people coming up from the World Trade Center
subway station to go back down, before himself climbing the stairs to
fires burning on the 75th floor of one of the towers. A doctor
re-examined the X-ray of a postal worker and diagnosed inhalation
anthrax in time for an effective antibiotic treatment to be
administered. A flight attendant noticed a passenger lighting a match
near his feet and acted swiftly to prevent him from detonating a bomb
concealed in his shoe. Ultimately, the security of the American
homeland rests upon individual judgment calls by those who guard the
frontlines: the border guards, immigration officers and customs
agents, the doctors, nurses, firemen and police officers. Managing,
coordinating, leading and mobilizing these people so that their
individual decisions add up to a nation more secure, better prepared
and more responsive to the terrorist threat is the organizational
challenge of homeland security.

. . . but Centralization Won't Work

The basic concept behind nearly all proposals that have been set
forth for organizing homeland security activities is centralization:
the consolidation of functions now scattered across numerous agencies
under one common organizational roof. As one astute commentator put
it, "There is nothing that has the force of an uncompromising and
powerful new entity. A Department of Homeland Security, with power
and budgets and subordinate agencies, is also the only way to avoid
the disconnected roots of Sept. 11. Only a department would have the
ability to set changing priorities between a terrorist and
non-terrorist focus, and prepare and respond accordingly."

Essay Types: Essay