As its leadership changes for the first time, the Department of Homeland Security remains hampered by personality conflicts, bureaucratic bottlenecks and an atmosphere of demoralization, undermining its ability to protect the nation against terrorist attack, according to current and former administration officials and independent experts.
Although the 22-month-old department has vast powers over the lives of travelers, immigrants and citizens, it remains a second-tier agency in the clout it commands within President Bush's Cabinet, the officials said. Pockets of dysfunction are scattered throughout the 180,000-employee agency, they said.
There is wide consensus that the agency has made important strides in a number of areas, including establishing high-speed communications links with state and local authorities, researching sensors to detect explosives and biopathogens, and addressing vulnerabilities in the nation's aviation system. Its weaknesses, including scant progress in protecting thousands of U.S. chemical plants, rail yards and other elements of the nation's critical infrastructure, have received considerable public attention as well.
Less well known is the role that turf battles, personal animosities and bureaucratic hesitancy have played in limiting the headway made by the infant department, an amalgam of 22 federal agencies that Congress merged after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said.
The department made little progress protecting infrastructure because officials spent much of their time on detailed strategic plans for that task and believed they were technically prohibited by law from spending money on most such efforts. Others in government disagreed, and DHS officials did not reword the technical legal language until recent months.
Two arms of the department gridlocked over efforts to secure hazardous chemicals on trains -- one of Congress's most feared terrorist-attack scenarios.
Lengthy delays in deciding which agency would take the lead in tracking people and cargo at U.S. ports of entry resulted from similar disputes. Efforts to develop tamper-proof shipping containers were among the initiatives stalled.
The department's investigative arm, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has operated under severe financial crisis for more than a year -- to the point that use of agency vehicles and photocopying were at times banned. The problem stems from funding disputes with other DHS agencies.
Richard A. Falkenrath, who until last May was Bush's deputy homeland security adviser, said many officials at the department were so inexperienced in grasping the levers of power in Washington, and so bashful about trying, that they failed to make progress on some fronts.
"The department has accomplished a great deal in immensely difficult circumstances, but it could have accomplished even more if it had had more aggressive and experienced staff," said Falkenrath, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It would have done better if it had been less timid, less insular and less worried about facing down internal and external opposition."
"This department is immensely powerful in society, given its central role in foreign trade, immigration and transportation," he added. "But it is far less powerful in interagency meetings and the White House situation room."
Michael Chertoff, a federal appeals court judge who is Bush's nominee to succeed the department's first secretary, Tom Ridge, begins confirmation hearings today. He has been described as a no-nonsense administrator who would not hesitate to intercede in turf wars or get tough with recalcitrant bureaucrats.
Homeland Security leaders accept many of the criticisms of the department's performance by government officials and experts but reject others as unfair. "Nobody fully understands the complexity of our task: to build a department out of 22 agencies, operate it, reorganize it, and design and build networks and systems that will defend the nation in perpetuity," said Ridge, who stepped down yesterday. Ridge is widely credited with managing the first phase of the most complicated government reorganization since the 1940s. But the former Pennsylvania governor also is noted for having a politician's desire to please all comers, which resulted in some policy quandaries remaining unaddressed for long periods, officials and experts said.
Top DHS officials point out that much of their time has been spent crafting eight huge internal initiatives. Finished in some cases only in recent weeks, they map out the department's new information technology, payroll, personnel, procurement and other systems.