Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article, including this morning's print edition, misstated the former title of George W. Foresman, who served as DHS undersecretary for preparedness from 2005 to 2007.

DHS Strains As Goals, Mandates Go Unmet

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defends slowing some of the department's programs. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008

Stumping for President Bush's ill-fated immigration overhaul in 2006, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff vowed that his department would wrest "operational control" of the nation's borders away from human and drug traffickers within five years.

That projection was based on the prospect of tough new enforcement measures as well as a temporary-worker program meant to stanch the flow of illegal immigrants, including the most ambitious use of surveillance technology ever tried on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Two years later, the legislative overhaul has been shelved, development of the "virtual fence" has been delayed, and its designers are going back to the drawing board. Completion of its first phase has been put off until as late as 2011, congressional investigators say. The possibility of this outcome was flagged early on by internal and external watchdogs, who warned of unrealistically tight deadlines, vague direction to contractors, harsh operating conditions and tough requirements of Border Patrol end-users.

The virtual fence is not the first major contractor-led technology effort to be ineffective, incomplete or too expensive to sustain since the Department of Homeland Security was formed five years ago this month. Former officials, private-sector partners and independent analysts say the evolving 208,000-worker, $38 billion agency remains hindered by a crisis-of-the-moment environment, in which the rush to fulfill each new mandate or meet every threat undermines its ability to hold a strategic course and deliver promised results.

Among a slew of high-profile projects that have gone astray, DHS has struggled to field next-generation explosive-detection "puffer devices" at airports and has projected it could take $22 billion and 16 more years to deploy advanced baggage-screening systems in airports.

It scaled back and indefinitely delayed the "exit" half of a $10 billion, biometric entry-exit system to track foreign visitors using digital fingerprints and photographs, citing technological and cost problems. Homeland Security also faces a congressional mandate after the Dubai Ports World controversy to scan 100 percent of U.S.-bound shipping containers overseas, while scientific and logistical problems have hampered a $1.2 billion effort to field highly effective nuclear detection devices.

To be sure, the department's managers in its first half-decade have labored hard to oversee 22 rivalrous components. They have improved aviation security and forged a more unified strategy for improving border security and using intelligence.

DHS spokesman Russ Knocke noted that Chertoff this week requested a comprehensive review of airport screening policies to increase efficiency and eliminate outdated steps, and that the department has begun tracking exiting visitors at airports and expects more progress soon at land borders. DHS also moved faster than required to launch experimental scanning efforts at several overseas ports.

Still, the ever-growing list of troubled programs illustrates the extent to which each new crisis -- from the 2001 terrorist attacks to Hurricane Katrina to the Dubai ports scare to the Bush administration's push for comprehensive immigration policy revisions -- has forced DHS leaders to launch costly initiatives with broadly defined goals that wind up missing their targets.

"You felt the pressures. You see the threats. You see the political needs and you think, 'We need to make sure it's the best we can do to solve this problem as soon as we can.' And that's a constant problem with the department," said C. Stewart Verdery Jr., assistant secretary of policy for border and transportation security from 2003 to 2005, who now is a private consultant.

If the Pentagon is the bureaucratic equivalent of Washington's biggest, hardest-to-turn battleship, "DHS is like a speedboat and it keeps turning . . . constantly shifting gears," Verdery said. "If you told people five years ago there was going to be a billion dollars for a fence, people would have laughed at you."

Department veterans complain that its contract-management system is weak, and that it still has trouble working with experts both inside and outside government to set rigorous, enforceable requirements on contractors.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company