Deck Chairs on the Ship of State

Well, President Bush has his Homeland Security Agency. I hope he’s happy. I doubt that American taxpayers and citizens will be especially pleased when it all shakes out, but the president has parlayed this year’s election results into the appearance of decisiveness and a short-term political victory.

Good for him. Not so good for us.

The legislation will sweep all or parts of 22 different agencies – including the Coast Guard, Secret Service, INS and others – under the umbrella of a new Cabinet-level agency that employs about 170,000 people and has a current budget of around $40 billion. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who has been the president’s chief adviser and honcho on homeland security since shortly after 9/11, has been named to head the new agency.

A QUICK POLITICAL FIX

This new agency amounts to the most extensive restructuring of the federal government since the Department of Defense (arguably an Orwellian formulation; War Department was probably more honest) was cobbled together after World War II. But that reorganization was undertaken in a relatively deliberative fashion.

Congressional committees started holding hearings on the proposed restructuring in 1945. It wasn’t until 1947, after most of the possible ramifications had at least been discussed in public, if not necessarily actually solved, that legislation was presented to President Truman for him to sign. Even then implementation was not trouble-free.

By contrast, when it came down to it, the House had to vote on last-minute revisions a couple of weeks ago in about 48 hours. Until the day of the actual vote, none of the legislators had the actual language that had been added or revised as a result of negotiations with a few Senators who had been wheedled post-election by the White House; they had to rely on summaries done by Congressional Quarterly. Those summaries were probably fairly competent, but so often in complex legislation the devil is in the details.

It is almost certainly accurate to say that no Member of Congress had read the bill in its entirety before casting a vote on it. It is certainly justifiable to doubt if even the most wonkish of the legislators understood the implications. Maybe a few aides had a good picture, but MCs are often just too busy to get to such matters before voting.

A PREEMPTIVE STRIKE?

Then there’s the provenance of the Homeland Security (and doesn’t the name itself have a Mussolinian whiff to it?) idea. The reorganization was originally proposed by congressional Democrats desperate to be seen as relevant in the wake of skyrocketing approval numbers for Bush in the wake of 9/11. The Bush administration ignored it – until March or April of this year when there was fairly widespread discussion (remember?) of culpable failure to connect the dots before the attack and the possibility of an independent commission to get to the bottom of intelligence failures.

Part of the shuffling to avoid outright responsibility on the part of the administration was to embrace the idea of a Homeland Security Agency. You don’t have to look into the pre-9/11 failures too closely, was the message official Washington and most of the lapdog media got. We’re handling it by reorganizing.

Of course, since the reorganizing didn’t include any reassessment of the way any of these agencies operated – and didn’t involve the FBI or the CIA, the two agencies most responsible for the kind of intelligence the U.S. collects – there is little reason to suspect that the creation of this new agency will make a single American notably safer from foreign or domestic attacks. This is especially so given bureaucratic dynamics.

If there was deadwood to be cut in any of the agencies incorporated into the new monstrosity – and you can be sure there is plenty – the sensible thing would have been to assess each agency first, reform and refine it, and then place it under the new umbrella. Having them placed into the HSA without review or reform will give the new Homeland Security Commissar every bureaucratic incentive to protect these agencies now under his care from anything resembling serious reform – and especially from cutbacks. The government should have cut before it pasted.

AVOIDING THE REAL PROBLEM

I’m not one of those who claims the government knew about the impending attacks and purposely avoided doing anything about them. But it is becoming at least likely that the government had a good deal of information about the hijackers in advance, and the opportunity to get more. It wasn’t lack of power to surveill the American people, or even lack of information, that caused this intelligence failure. It was failure to communicate among the agencies, often exacerbated by turf conflicts, that was the major cause of this failure of the government to do its single most justifiable function.

A logical look at the situation, then, would have included not only ideas to improve communication and deconstruct some of the walls agencies have built around themselves. It would have included proposals to cut back deadwood and useless functions at many agencies. It is often the sheer proliferation of personnel, especially in a government agency, but also in business enterprises, that makes it difficult for people in different branches of an agency or department to communicate effectively and to coordinate their activities.

When there are layers upon layers of bureaucracy, even a well-intentioned person trying to do the right thing – like get news about a flock of Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons for no obvious commercial reason to the right people at the FBI – can encounter mainly brick walls and frustration. Repeated encounters with the bureaucratic ooze is often a contributing factor to the kind of apathy, lethargy and sense of hopelessness or powerlessness one often notices in government workers.

So an approach that actually contemplated improving the situation that contributed to pre-9/11 failures would almost certainly have involved cutting and trimming bureaucracies, probably even eliminating a few. It would have focused on moving information and spreading it around to people who might be in a position to act on it or to make connections rather than on changing nameplates on government buildings.

I have gotten mixed opinions from various people I have talked to about whether the FBI and CIA should have been part of the new HSA. One retired law enforcement officer and consultant with whom I speak regularly is relieved that they weren’t put under the HSA umbrella – although he thinks both are pathetic and need a lot of reform – because that would have made them even more politicized, ineffective and unaccountable. Another with a similar background is outraged that they weren’t, because they are the major problems and shoving them into a new department might – might – have provided something of a wake-up call.

I suspect that my second source understands but doesn’t want to say that the real purpose of creating the new department was not to solve any intelligence shortcomings or to make the American people more secure, but to create the appearance of taking decisive action. In other words, the creation of the new department is strictly a cosmetic act designed to distract people from the fact that nobody in government is really looking into the sources of the shortcomings or doing anything to fix them.

Nobody in Congress or the bureaucracy really wants to find out why the government failed so massively in any detail, because a full understanding would implicate too many people – often enough including those charged with trying to fix things. So they move the deck chairs around, congratulate themselves, feed stories to the lapdog press, and hope no small child points out the emperor’s lack of raiment.

NOT ENTIRELY HARMLESS

If this were simply reshuffling, Americans might not have cause for sustained outrage, even though it assures steady growth in the budgets of all these agencies – new departments generally have a honeymoon of fairly lengthy duration before they face GAO reports that are ignored by Congress. Unfortunately, the changes involved in the Homeland Security legislation are not all neutral. Somehow they managed (surprise!) to slip in provisions that increase the power of government at the expense of the liberty of the citizens, as Jefferson would have expected.

A fair amount has been written, by commentators from William Safire to Clarence Page, about former Iran-Contra scoundrel Adm. John Poindexter and his "Total Information Awareness" program at the Pentagon. The new legislation will give this project, already underway, to collect information from all citizens on credit card, licensing, passport, prescription, travel and other sundry transactions, even more authority than Poindexter has already assumed.

The legislation also concentrates more power in the hands of the executive branch. Proponents argue this is needed to provide a swift response to terrorist threats. But without trimming and paring some of the agencies, they are likely to be at least as ineffective as before and grow more ineffective. And the more power is concentrated the less accountable it is likely to be.

The legislation also further blurs the distinction between the military and civilian law enforcement. The administration wants to be able to use the military in such endeavors from time to time – as if it hadn’t already seriously overcommitted the military overseas – so it included some exceptions to the Posse Comitatus Act, which drew a line between military and civilian some 125 years ago. This is incredibly dangerous and wrongheaded.

It also will provide for anyone identified as a potential terrorist, or a potential associate of a potential terrorist, to be subject to surveillance, interrogation and detention – even U.S. citizens – without access to a lawyer or family members, or even any required acknowledgment that a person is being held. This kind of secret police stuff sounds like something out of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, or North Korea. But it will be the law of the land in the land of the "free."

IRRELEVANT OBJECTIONS

Naturally, congressional Democrats, once they had been snookered by the president when he hijacked their idea and made it his own, didn’t raise these kind of substantive objections to the homeland security scheme. Instead, they complained that the Bushies didn’t want to cede enough power to government employee unions. When that didn’t work they complained that the House had favored special interests by reducing the potential liability pharmaceutical manufacturers might face if certain vaccines were distributed on a mass scale and some problems arose.

Those kind of trivial complaints illustrate the cluelessness or complicity of the Democratic branch of the Government Party. One would almost cheer that they failed – except that the end result is more centralized, unaccountable power and more limits on the personal liberties Americans have traditionally enjoyed – and which our leaders insist (all the more so as war approaches and real oppression looms) they are trying to preserve.

Read more by Alan Bock

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock’s Waiting
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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange
County Register
. He is the author of Ambush
at Ruby Ridge
(Putnam-Berkley, 1995).