GAO Criticizes Homeland Security's Efforts to Fulfill Its Mission

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

Hobbled by inadequate funding, unclear priorities, continuing reorganizations and the absence of an overarching strategy, the Department of Homeland Security is failing to achieve its mission of preventing and responding to terrorist attacks or natural disasters, according to a comprehensive report by the Government Accountability Office.

The highly critical report disputes recent upbeat assessments by the Bush administration by concluding that the DHS has failed to make even moderate progress toward eight of 14 internal government benchmarks more than four years after its creation.

The report is to be released to lawmakers today, as the Democratic Congress, Republican White House and presidential candidates from both parties are beginning to debate the administration's record of accomplishments since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, whose sixth anniversary will be on Tuesday.

It echoes a sober report card issued by the former Sept. 11 commission in December 2005, which awarded mostly failing and mediocre grades to the administration's efforts to prevent another terrorist attack.

The GAO states that after the largest government merger in more than half a century, the DHS met fewer than half of its performance objectives, or 78 of 171 directives identified by President Bush, Congress and the department's own strategic plans. The department strongly disputed the report.

In one of its harshest conclusions, the 320-page document states that the DHS has made the least progress toward some of the fundamental goals identified after the 2001 attacks and again after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005: improving emergency preparedness; capitalizing on the nation's wealth and scientific prowess through "Manhattan project"-style research initiatives; and eliminating bureaucratic and technical barriers to information-sharing.

Yesterday, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said that although the DHS "has made important progress," it requires more focused attention and money. "Clearly, we have a long way to go before the department achieves the goals we set out for it four and a half years ago," said Lieberman, who will chair a hearing on the matter this afternoon.

The panel's ranking Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), who faces a reelection race next year, also called on the DHS to "pick up the pace. . . . With so much at stake and so many areas where progress is still required, America cannot settle for a mixed report card."

At a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee yesterday, Secretary Michael Chertoff sought to preempt the GAO's findings, saying the Bush administration has "unequivocally" made the nation safer since 2001 and deserves credit for the absence of another strike on U.S. soil.

At the time, "no one would have been bold enough to predict that six years would pass without a further successful attack on the homeland," Chertoff said. He also complained that Congress itself has failed to streamline its oversight of the DHS.

Analysts from across the political spectrum have complained that the DHS has spent $241 billion over four years without performing a disciplined analysis of threats and implications.

The GAO report is the most exhaustive and independent look at the department since its creation, drawing on more than 400 earlier reviews and 700 recommendations by congressional investigators and the department's inspector general, as well as the goals set by the Sept.11 commission, the Century Foundation, congressional legislation and spending bills, and the administration's own plans and internal strategic documents, such as the White House's National Strategy for Homeland Security from July 2002.

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