Waste, Fraud and Security

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Friday, May 27, 2005

PERHAPS THE MOST disturbing aspect of the investigation by Post reporters Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Scott Higham into wasteful homeland security spending is how much of the information they assembled had been published by the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of Homeland Security's own inspector general -- meaning that the warning signs have been there from the beginning. As early as March 2003, Clark Kent Ervin, then DHS's inspector general, wrote his first memo, pointing out that DHS, at that point 17 days old, did not have enough trained contracting staff to deal with the enormous technology purchases it was about to make. Two years later, a DHS spokesman says that the number of trained staff members has risen substantially, but he agrees that it is still not high enough. Indeed, the reporters showed that the overseers of US-VISIT, the department's high-tech border screening program, are still too few and that their relationship with the company designing the program is still too symbiotic. The project could also wind up costing far more than projected as a result.

It would be unfair to say that the Department of Homeland Security has brought the nation nothing: To the question "are Americans safer than they were on Sept. 10, 2001," the only possible answer is yes. It would also be unfair to blame the high cost of those gains entirely on a department that has been rushing to meet what were, in retrospect, unrealistic goals set out by a Congress that was itself not set up to carry out the necessary oversight and was not particularly interested in curbing costs, either.

Nevertheless, it is true that on the narrower question posed by the articles -- has DHS made a difference in the nation's safety commensurate with the amount of money spent? -- the answer is probably no. Some of the biggest security gains have been made cheaply, sometimes thanks to unobtrusive, even private-sector initiatives. The 140 large companies that form the American Chemistry Council, for example -- a group with both financial and practical interests in not having their chemical plants blown up -- have created their own security code, internal communications system and inspectorate. By contrast, one of the most prominent and expensive agencies, the Transportation Security Administration, has flunked tests designed to measure whether smuggling explosive materials onto a plane has become more difficult.

Until now, DHS has not always expressed willingness to learn from its mistakes: A quick review of past DHS news releases reveals more than one attempt to exaggerate the department's achievements. But since taking office, the new homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, has made procurement and contracting issues a "top priority," according to his spokesman. He is completing a departmental review, due to be made public in the next few weeks. He should use that opportunity to change the department's culture, so that its employees react more rapidly and effectively to their own inspectors' criticism.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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