TWO YEARS: Terrorism
and Homeland Security
Government's Hobbled Giant
Homeland Security Is Struggling
By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2003; Page
Six months after it was established to protect the nation
from terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security is hobbled by
money woes, disorganization, turf battles and unsteady support from
the White House, and has made only halting progress toward its
goals, according to administration officials and independent
The top two officials under Homeland Security Secretary Tom
Ridge are stepping down amid criticism from some White House
officials and elsewhere in the administration. So few people want to
work at the department that more than 15 people declined requests to
apply for the top post in its intelligence unit -- and many others
turned down offers to run several other key offices, government
Desperately needed repairs to the department's cramped,
red-brick headquarters on a Navy facility in Northwest Washington
have been stalled by a shortage of money. Some employees at the
complex do not have the secure telephone lines required to do their
work, the officials said.
As a result, the department has made little progress on
some of the main challenges cited when it was created in March by
merging 22 federal agencies and their 170,000 employees, according
to officials in the Bush administration and Congress, as well as
some outside experts. The Bush administration initially resisted
establishing the department but eventually agreed.
Efforts to organize the government's 10 or so disparate
lists of potential terrorism suspects, secure airline cargo against
terrorist plots and advise local police and firefighters on training
and equipment have all foundered, the officials said.
"Not a lot is getting done at the top of the department,
and nobody's making them focus on it," said a White House official
who handles homeland security issues and who asked not to be
identified. "Nobody's got the fortitude to say, 'Sit down and shut
up.' . . . It's sad."
Two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that spawned
it, the department has become the centerpiece of the Bush
administration's efforts to guard against another terrorist strike,
making its success a factor in President Bush's political future, as
well. Already, Democrats, including some presidential candidates,
are criticizing what they assert is the department's
"Many of the initiatives needed to protect our homeland
have not been vigorously pursued," House Democrats said in a report
released Friday. It said the Homeland Security Department had failed
to hire enough border agents or to protect jetliners from
shoulder-fired missiles, initiatives the department is
Homeland Security officials accept some of the criticisms
leveled by members of the administration but dispute others.
Missteps are to be expected, they say, while undertaking the biggest
government reorganization in 50 years.
"Certainly there will be organizational issues to deal
with, since we're not just simultaneously combining 22 different
agencies, we're changing them," department spokesman Gordon Johndroe
said. "It's a work in progress, but we're pleased with the progress
Even the department's critics
acknowledge that it has achieved success in some areas. The
Transportation Security Administration's more than 50,000 airport
screeners and air marshals are credited with making airline flight
safer. An initiative to safeguard the 6 million shipping containers
that enter this country each year is off to a good start, officials
across the government and industry agree.
Some of Ridge's allies said that despite the distraction of
turmoil at the top of the department, its many agencies are moving
forward with their missions.
"Each and every day, we rise to a new level of readiness
and response, the highest level of protection this nation has ever
known," Ridge said in a speech last week. He cited efforts to
computerize the tracking of visitors to this country, and the
department's work securing airport perimeters.
The White House, meanwhile, denied that criticism from some
of its officials suggests a lack of support for the department at
the top. "The president's number one priority is the safety and
security of the American people, and the success of this department
is critical to that priority," White House spokeswoman Ashley Snee
said. "The department has the White House's complete and total
But Ridge, widely liked and respected for his hard work, is
not detail-oriented and has delegated most tasks to his chief of
staff, Bruce M. Lawlor, administration officials said.
Lawlor is expected to take a lower-level job at Homeland
Security after just eight months on the job, department officials
said. Deputy Secretary Gordon R. England is stepping down to return
to a previous post, secretary of the Navy.
Johndroe said Ridge, England and Lawlor all declined to be
Soon after it was launched, Lawlor quickly cut England out
of a number of important decisions, and England is widely seen as
inattentive in many settings, their colleagues said.
In February, England told a congressional hearing that
Homeland Security officials had abandoned plans to analyze
intelligence on terrorism, though that was a key reason for the
department's creation. Asked whether he was familiar with a
provision in the recently approved Homeland Security law setting
intelligence as a core mission, England said he was not. Hours
later, a furious Ridge sent letters to Congress correcting England's
Lawlor, an Army major general known for decisiveness during
crises, alienated many people in the White House and in the
department with a brusque and secretive manner, White House and
Homeland Security officials said.
While a chief of staff's job includes giving the secretary
advice that keeps him out of trouble, Lawlor has at times helped
lead Ridge in the wrong direction, their associates said. Lawlor was
involved in perhaps the most bitter dispute in the department's
short history, officials said.
Deadline Too Ambitious
In May, Ridge
signed an agreement with Attorney General John D. Ashcroft that had
been vetted by Lawlor's aides. It established the Justice Department
-- not Homeland Security -- as the lead agency investigating the
financing of terrorism. But the memo's wording suggested that the
Secret Service, which is part of the new department, would be
required to halt hundreds of probes and forgo its tradition of
financial investigations. Ridge apologized to enraged Secret Service
officials, and the rift took months to heal, officials said.
Underlying problems at the department began a year before
that. For months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the White House
opposed creation of a homeland security department, but in June
2002, with Congress on the verge of establishing the department
anyway, Bush reversed himself.
Top Bush aides were never enthusiastic about the plan,
however. To save money, and in keeping with Republican opposition to
big government, the White House ordered that the new department's
top ranks be extremely lean, people involved in the department's
Once Congress passed the law establishing the new
department last November, Bush set an ambitious four-month deadline
to open its doors -- too ambitious, officials said. The planning
process -- overseen by then White House personnel chief Clay S.
Johnson III, with only limited involvement by then presidential
homeland security adviser Ridge -- was done quickly and haphazardly,
White House and department officials said. Phone lines and desks for
the new offices were not lined up until just days before the launch,
Plans for locating department headquarters fell to a junior
White House aide, and only days before a skeleton staff went to work
on Jan. 24, Ridge learned that the site selected was in Chantilly,
Va., an hour's drive from Capitol Hill. Ridge rejected that choice,
and officials scrambled to line up the crowded office space at a
Navy facility in Washington.
On opening day, the result was an understaffed,
The understaffing results from several factors, not the
least being that many potential recruits for top jobs decline
because they consider Homeland Security a government backwater,
administration officials said. Another reason is that many fewer
federal employees than were publicly reported actually transferred
there from the agencies that were combined to form Homeland
One example: the FBI's cybersecurity office. The
administration said 795 people in that FBI unit were joining
Homeland Security. But that office had only 92 people to begin with,
and most decided to stay with the more reliably funded,
higher-status FBI. In the end, only 22 joined the new department
when the FBI cybersecurity office changed hands. Officials
acknowledge the discrepancy, saying the larger number reflected
confusion about how many employees were intended for
Competing for Power
As soon as Ridge
left the White House to inaugurate the department, several
administration officials said, White House officials began
distancing themselves from the new creation. They offered little
help, for example, in recruiting prospects for its top spots, said
Rand Beers, a former White House counterterrorism official who now
works on the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
White House officials have made limited efforts to persuade
administration figures to cooperate with Homeland Security,
officials said. Some White House staff members, including members of
Bush's newly formed Homeland Security Council, have openly
criticized what they view as disorganization in the department's top
ranks. The 50-person council, a coordinating body akin to the
National Security Council, now competes for power with Ridge,
Asked about this, a White House spokesman said, "this is a
huge government reorganization, and everyone's not going to agree
all the time.''
Officials said a small number of Defense Department
officials dismiss Ridge's operation and at times fail to send
representatives to interagency meetings on homeland security.
Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland
defense, denied that charge, saying the Pentagon has sent people to
almost all such meetings, and is preparing to dispatch 50 military
officials to work full time at the department.
Aside from a cadre of top aides working for Lawlor, the
staff around Ridge is exceedingly spare. Some people view that as a
mistake, saying the department needs something like the policy
office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a
thousands-strong unit that considers the largest strategic issues
facing the military.
"It's a very thin operation," said Paul C. Light, a scholar
of government at New York University. Compared to the departments of
Education and Energy in the first year of their operation, "this one
has a much less sophisticated hierarchy. . . . I'm surprised there
isn't a political infrastructure at the top of the
One ranking department official said that in part because
of staffing shortages, "it's impossible for this department to do
anything but manage by the in-box. . . . There's not a lot of
brainpower asking, 'What's our agenda? What are the threats of the
21st century?' "
Meanwhile, department leaders spend huge amounts of time
appearing before Congress. Because dozens of committees and
subcommittees have oversight claims on the department through their
old ties to the legacy agencies, Congress has sent thousands of
requests for Homeland Security officials to appear on the Hill and
thousands more letters demanding answers or action.
Despite a budget that exceeds $36 billion, money is scarce
and a constant preoccupation for department managers. Federal budget
experts drastically underestimated the overtime costs of the tens of
thousands of airport screeners, and Congress and the White House
have largely refused to increase spending. The result is cascading
budget crises that have led officials to make emergency cuts in
crucial programs such as port security and air marshals, which
Congress has then overruled.
Homeland Security officials say the department's problems
often receive more attention than its successes.
"Not only do we do our day jobs of guarding the borders,
securing the ports and scanning passengers entering the airports, we
also are reorganizing the entire department," Johndroe said. "The
department's roles and missions are still being defined."
"We're learning what works," he said.
© 2003 The Washington Post