Into the Second Decade of Homeland Security

May 22, 2015
By Bill Nolte

The department has accomplished much amid criticism.

In less than four months, we will mark another anniversary of September 11. It may not be an especially notable anniversary—as would the 15th or the 20th—but it nonetheless can provide an opportunity to assess where the United States and its people stand roughly midway through the second decade of homeland security.

First of all, let us acknowledge that “homeland” remains a euphemism for “domestic.” September 2001 forced us to accept that we no longer could defend U.S. interests only at a distance, but instead we must defend our territory within our territory in ways we have not needed to do for a century. Realistic or not, this remains an unpleasant development for Americans to accept.

How have we done? In the next few months, it is likely that the news media will publish a report that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has one of the lowest employee morale ratings of any major government agency. This is not a positive indicator, but perhaps it should not come as a surprise. The DHS is a large, complex organization, cobbled together from more than 20 predecessor components, overseen by most—or so it seems—of the committees of Congress, and with a new headquarters that is over budget, off schedule and unlikely to be completed. That is not exactly a formula for efficiency or high morale. Beyond that, its founding legislation is a study in post-crisis legislation; meaning if it were an airplane, sensible people might think twice before boarding it. Finally, none of the oversight committees dealing with the DHS has found time to consider a thorough review of the Homeland Security Act. Maybe they think they got it right the first time.

With all this said, the DHS and its federal, state, local and tribal partners have much to feel good about. The major components brought into the DHS have not collapsed. The customs are collected, the president is protected—Secret Service misadventures notwithstanding—and the Coast Guard does everything from protecting our ports to rescuing sailors. Cooperation and communication between Washington and other levels of government, if not perfect, seems more robust than in 2001. Admittedly, the immigration and border agencies have not solved those problems, but enacting laws and policies is not their job, for which they have been dealt a weak hand.

The most frequent encounter Americans have with DHS personnel is with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and from time to time, an odd or even stupid security line encounter makes the news. Given the millions of passenger/agent encounters, these seem aberrational. Moreover, did any of us, in the period immediately following September 2001, believe we could put in place the procedures we now follow every day without completely gumming up the airline industry?

The most important part of the answer to “How are we doing?” must address the question of how successful we have been in deterring or thwarting terrorist attacks. The hard truth here is that we can never know the answer, at least for certain. We do know we have experienced terrorist incidents since September 11, 2001, but none remotely at that level. Assuming that terrorists have not lost interest in the United States as target, maybe we have been lucky. Or maybe we have taken significant steps in making the U.S. homeland a hard—or harder—target. It never hurts to be lucky, but the latter option reflects a significant accomplishment, for which the entire homeland security work force, at all levels, should take pride.

My suggestion? Cut the DHS some slack. Applaud the decision to avoid breaking up its successful, pre-existing components. Acknowledge that the impositions imposed on us after September 2001 are impositions we—through our representatives—wanted, if not demanded. Realize, moreover, that this is a long and unusual campaign against an elusive and relatively amorphous set of adversaries, in which the outcome will more likely be analogous to controlling crime than winning a war. We have made it harder for foreign terrorists to enter the country, but now we must deal, more than ever, with their home-grown colleagues. We have made it difficult for terrorist recruits to travel to Syria through Turkey and return without attracting attention and surveillance; at some point, however, this is almost certain to lead to an increase in the “home schooled” terrorist who can gain an education in terror online.

A final thought: the passage of time, along with the Manning and Snowden disclosures, has raised public concerns about actions that may increase our security but do so at cost to our values. It remains difficult to evaluate either the extent or the depth of those concerns, but we should not discount them. They remain legitimate expressions of our deeply held skepticism regarding power and secrecy in government. And they are almost certain to produce some adjustments in the security/privacy balance struck after 9/11. We only can hope those adjustments are not ones we will someday regret.

Bill Nolte is a research professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

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