TWO YEARS LATER: Terrorism and Homeland Security
Government's Hobbled Giant
Homeland Security Is Struggling
By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2003; Page A01
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 experts.
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 officials said.
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 ineffectiveness.
"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 pursuing.
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 so far."
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 support."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company