PRELUDE TO DISASTER : The Making of DHS
Department's Mission Was Undermined From Start
Thursday, December 22, 2005
The Department of Homeland Security was only a month old, and already it had an image problem.
It was April 2003, and Susan Neely, a close aide to DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, decided the gargantuan new conglomeration of 22 federal agencies had to stand for something more than multicolored threat levels. It needed an identity -- not the "flavor of the day in terms of brand chic," as Neely put it, but something meant to last.
So she called in the branders.
Neely hired Landor Associates, the same company that invented the FedEx name and the BP sunflower, and together they began to rebrand a behemoth Landor described in a confidential briefing as a "disparate organization with a lack of focus." They developed a new DHS typeface (Joanna, with modifications) and color scheme (cool gray, red and hints of "punched-up" blue). They debated new uniforms for its armies of agents and focus-group-tested a new seal designed to convey "strength" and "gravitas." The department even got its own lapel pin, which was given to all 180,000 of its employees -- with Ridge's signature -- to celebrate its "brand launch" that June.
"It's got to have its own story," Neely explained.
Nearly three years after it was created in the largest government reorganization since the Department of Defense, DHS does have a story, but so far it is one of haphazard design, bureaucratic warfare and unfulfilled promises. The department's first significant test -- its response to Hurricane Katrina in August -- exposed a troubled organization where preparedness was more slogan than mission.
Born out of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, DHS was initially expected to synthesize intelligence, secure borders, protect infrastructure and prepare for the next catastrophe. For most of those missions, the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission recently gave the Bush administration D's or F's. To some extent, the department was set up to fail. It was assigned the awesome responsibility of defending the homeland without the investigative, intelligence and military powers of the FBI, CIA and the Pentagon; it was also repeatedly undermined by the White House that initially opposed its creation. But the department has also struggled to execute even seemingly basic tasks, such as prioritizing America's most critical infrastructure.
When Coast Guard Adm. James M. Loy signed on as Ridge's top deputy in the fall of 2003, "I found turmoil," he recalled, and "lack of strategic direction." When Loy left earlier this year, he believed DHS was sorely in need of "a midcourse correction." And Michael Chertoff, Ridge's successor, said in an interview that when he arrived in February, he was disturbed by the department's "insufficient focus on outcome and mission." Chertoff was so disturbed that he has already proposed a broad restructuring of DHS.
"We're not where we need to be," he said.
President Bush hailed DHS as his administration's answer to the "urgent and overriding" mission of securing the homeland. But the department designed in secrecy and haste in the White House basement and complicated further on Capitol Hill was hobbled from the start by what the branders called a "Rube Goldberg drawing" of an organization chart.
Interviews with dozens of participants in DHS's formation and operation -- including Ridge and Chertoff, White House aides, Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, and current and former DHS officials -- suggest the sheer magnitude of the bureaucratic challenge overwhelmed the department's leaders. They worked almost full time on the merger, too busy to do much more than manage their inboxes, referee internal turf wars and wage losing battles with departments that commanded more clout at the White House.
Most corporate mergers fail, and even the successful ones often take years to produce dividends. DHS can point to some results, including hardened cockpit doors on commercial airliners, background checks for truckers and radiation detectors at ports. DHS has consolidated eight payroll providers into one system, and 22 human resources offices into seven. And there has not been another terrorist attack.