Far From Homeland, Staff Deployed in Iraq
New Department Aids Reconstruction
By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 1, 2003; Page A17
Some employees of the Department of Homeland Security are working pretty far from the homeland these days. About 6,200 miles away, actually -- in Iraq.
Since President Bush declared the end of major combat in May, workers from throughout the new department have been toiling on reconstruction tasks there. Officials in Washington insist the assignments -- from promoting aviation security at Baghdad International Airport to retrieving ancient artifacts looted from Iraqi museums -- are about protecting the U.S. homeland.
"We think helping to secure Iraq helps make the United States a more secure country," said Gordon Johndroe, a department spokesman. "Making sure that aviation travel out of Iraq is safe directly affects our homeland security. Making sure that goods and people are not smuggled into or out of Iraq helps our homeland security."
In recent weeks, some Democrats on Capitol Hill have complained that the Bush administration, absorbed with postwar problems in Iraq, has neglected the fight against terrorism. And not everyone is sure that lending out DHS personnel to help rebuild Iraq is the most appropriate use of the department's resources.
"The point of the Homeland Security Department is to make us safer -- safer from terrorists, safer from those who would do Americans harm and who would get inside the border of our country," said Jamal Simmons, a spokesman for Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), former chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. "So anything that George Bush is allowing the Homeland Security Department to do outside of that directive is a misuse of the department."
Since June, five security experts from the Transportation Security Administration have been working with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to establish security procedures for the aviation system in Iraq. The work, primarily at the Baghdad airport, involves training Iraqis to set up checkpoints and craft plans to screen passengers and bags, officials said. Three specialists are still there.
In a similar vein, seven officials from the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection have helped authorities at the Baghdad and Basra airports establish procedures for processing international passengers and inspecting goods. Bureau officials also are working with former Iraqi customs managers to begin laying the groundwork for a nationwide system of customs and border protection, Johndroe said.
Pat Jones, a spokesman for the bureau, said sending seven employees to Iraq obviously leaves fewer people behind to carry out the agency's domestic mission, but the impact is minimal. "They are excellent people, but the business of the bureau is going to continue," Jones said. "It's just a question of priorities. And getting some airport in Iraq open for international flights and having the customs and immigration personnel there trained and ready to go is considered a very high priority."
Rep. Jim Turner (Tex.), the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said he saw nothing wrong with such deployments.
"It might be, at first blush, easy to say, 'Well, what is an agency that is dedicated to protecting our homeland doing with employees halfway around the world?' " Turner said. "It should come as no surprise that an agency that is made up of what was 22 separate agencies of the federal government, and 180,000 employees, would have within it some expertise that might be helpful in rebuilding Iraq."
Other agencies within Homeland Security are in on the action.
Members of the Secret Service based in Rome have made several trips to Iraq to assist in authenticating $800 million in recovered currency. The service is developing a course to teach Iraqis how to determine if dinars are counterfeit.
The Coast Guard, which deployed more than 1,200 personnel and several ships to protect naval vessels, regional ports and oil terminals during the war, still has eight patrol boats and four port security units in the region, Johndroe said.
A team of 14 special agents from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has helped track down the money, weapons and loyalists of Saddam Hussein government. They slept in the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad to help protect it and played a key role in recovering looted artifacts. In all, the team found 43 missiles, $32 million in assets, 1,000 missing Iraqi artifacts and 39,500 documents, said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the bureau.
Boyd said one of the bureau's jobs is to determine whether companies from the United States and other countries are illegally supplying weapons components to rogue governments, a job that requires the agency to have offices in 30 countries.
"You can sit and build a fortress here in the United States, but you've got to have contacts around the globe to gather information and work jointly with our foreign counterparts to look at international crime and terrorism," Boyd said.
Johndroe said he did not have an estimate of the cost of department activities in Iraq. But "this does not lead to a shortage of personnel," he said.
Bathsheba Crocker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank that recently completed a report critical of postwar reconstruction operations in Iraq, said this week that sending Homeland Security experts over to train Iraqis is a "positive step."
One criticism by the think tank was that the administration, by vesting all reconstruction authority in the Pentagon, chose a new model for postwar management that cut out many more experienced agencies. "The Pentagon does need to be engaging more broadly with other U.S. government agencies -- not necessarily because they can't do it, but because we do have expertise" in other agencies, said Crocker, a former State Department attorney.
Ivo H. Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it may make sense to put some Homeland Security experts in Iraq, but it comes at a cost. Deploying the overburdened Coast Guard abroad, for example, means it cannot do its job as well at home, Daalder said. "There is a trade-off, and it's not clear that the trade-off is always being made in the right direction."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company