DHS Is a Mess

by , September 30, 2014

After an intruder was able to jump over the fence and enter the White House, the Secret Service, an agency in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is talking about augmenting security procedures and widening the White House security perimeter to include surrounding areas in the executive mansion’s neighborhood. Because I work across Lafayette Park from the White House, I experience the already oppressive security around it everyday. The street in front of the president’s residence is completely blocked off from traffic; uniformed secret service swarm, both on foot and in patrol cars out front; inside the fence motion and other sensors should warn of any intruders, and Lafayette Park is likely under constant surveillance. Thus, the "people’s house" in the "freest nation on earth" is already a mini garrison state.

Yet security agencies regularly use any incident as a way to enhance their reach and constrict the freedom they are supposed to be protecting. Despite all of these security measures, the intruder was able to enter the White House through an unsecured door. Perhaps the Secret Service should merely lock the door, much as hundreds of millions of Americans do, and call it a day.

This is just one example of DHS’s bureaucratic approach to security that often defies common sense. Another is the airport security measures of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), another agency in DHS. After the 9/11 attacks, had the government done nothing, air travel would have been much safer anyway. The old paradigm – crew and passengers letting airline hijackers have their way, knowing that they probably would be freed eventually in Cuba or someplace else after the hijackers got the publicity they sought – was shattered. From now on, crew and passengers would be much more surly in subduing hijackers, thinking that otherwise they would die and take many more of their fellow citizens with them in any building the hijacked plane hit. If the authorities wanted to do something, they should have hardened the cockpit doors – essentially the equivalent of locking the White House door – and called it a day. Instead we also got ludicrous restrictions governing carry-on luggage – a prohibition on carrying fingernail clippers, a limit on liquids of three ounces, and a requirement to remove and x-ray our shoes. To illustrate the absurdity of the last requirement, many other countries don’t have it, and Fran Townsend, President George W. Bush’s Homeland Security adviser, said after leaving office that she thought the shoe inspection requirement would have long been scrapped. If the requirement was so ridiculous, one might ask why she and Bush imposed it in the first place! Most of these dubious requirements are officials wanting to pretend to "do something" about a problem and security bureaucracies wanting to expand control.

The creation of DHS itself was an example of politicians needing to do something after the 9/11 attacks. The Congress, with Bush’s eventual support, glued 22 disparate agencies together to form the new department and added an extra layer of administration over the top to supervise them, ensuring that the new organization’s bureaucracy would be stifling. Thus, politicians’ desire for post-9/11 appearances actually made American security agencies less agile in battling small, nimble terrorist groups. (The same thing happened when a new weak bureaucracy – the Director of National Intelligence – was added to supervise the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.)

The DHS morass apparently has been tanking morale and leading to an exodus of personnel at nearly twice the rate of other agencies in the government, according to the Washington Post. The employees are fleeing to more lucrative jobs in private security firms.

Thus, soon we will probably hear the call for additional taxpayer dollars to pay employees more to stanch the exodus. However, hiking DHS’s budget would be rewarding abject failure. Instead, the Congress should demand that the department get its act together or be dismembered. In Washington, however, adding bureaucracy and money is more common than admitting failure and reversing these trends. But increasing bureaucracy rarely enhances security – in fact, the reverse is true. And instead of hysterically bombing the Islamic State – a group that focuses on establishing an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria rather than on striking the United States – and thereby making the group more prone to beginning such retaliatory attacks, perhaps President Obama and Congress should work on transforming DHS to better defend against terrorist groups that actually are trying to do violence to the United States.

Read more by Ivan Eland