Transcript

Special Report: Department of Homeland Security

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Clark Kent Ervin
Former DHS Inspector General
Tuesday, May 24, 2005; 2:30 PM

In a special report, Post reporters Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr examine how homeland security contracting. After the terror attacks on New York and Washington, the U.S. government rushed to secure the nation. Billions of dollars were spent but the government's own internal audits have repeatedly questioned the cost and effectiveness of the equipment and security systems purchased from corporations that received a torrent of money under loosened regulations, limited oversight and tight congressional deadlines.

Clark Kent Ervin, former DHS Inspector General, was online to discuss The Post's report.

Read more: Contracting Rush for Security Led to Waste, Abuse.

U.S. Border Security at a Crossroads.

A transcript follows.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Were you able to refer matters involving potential fraud to the appropriate United States Attorney's Office for investigation as a civil or criminal matter?

Clark Kent Ervin: Yes. We routinely referred matters to that office and others with the Department of Justice for prosecution when we had evidence of criminal wrongdoing or civil misconduct.

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Washington, D.C.: Sounds like a certain agency has waaaay too much money for their own good.

Clark Kent Ervin: Well, actually, though I'm a conservative who generally thinks that government spends more money than it needs to, the Department of Homeland Security could actually use a lot more money than it has. The problem is that it's so misused the money it's been given that it's unlikely to get more money anytime soon.

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Maryland: I guess throwing money at a problem still won't fix it. "When will they ever learn, when will they...ever learn?"

Clark Kent Ervin: I agree with this, basically. Money alone is never the answer, and certainly that is true in the area of homeland security. That said, as I said in a previous answer, securing the homeland will require significantly more money than the department has been given

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Scottsdale, Ariz.: Is there a solution to securing the borders, and if so, what is it?

Clark Kent Ervin: We can never have 100% security, but, we can do a far better job of securing our borders than we're presently doing. Basically, it requires significantly more border patrol officers, and it requires the widespread deployment of technology like sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles. In addition, the US VISIT biometric-based entry-exit system needs to be completed and integrated with the best terrorist watch list information we have.

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Bethesda, Md.: How does the bottom line of this waste compare to the amount wasted on the war in Iraq, which was sold by a President fixing the intelligence to fit the policy desired by his neocon pals at Project for a New American Century? The latter was the assessment in the memo to Tony Blair (cowardly ignored by our U.S. media) by the head of Britain's intelligence agency.

Clark Kent Ervin: I'll confine my remarks today to homeland security issues.

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Bethesda, Md.: Congratulations, Mr. Ervin, on a job extremely well done while you were allowed to serve as Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security. Your refusal to bow to the politicization of this new department obviously led Ridge to trash you as an invaluable messenger.

My question: Have you been asked by Secretary Chertoff or his designee(s) for your counsel in his ongoing evaluation of departmental policy, procedure, organization, structure and mission and, if not, what would be the three most important pieces of advice that you would offer to the new secretary?

Clark Kent Ervin: Thank you for your kind words. I've not been asked by the new Secretary or his team to consult with them, though I'd very much like to do so and have offered to do so through indirect channels.

If I were he, my top priorities would be: (1) working to ensure that DHS has access to the intelligence it needs to protect the homeland against terrorist threats; (2) completing the list of the nation's most critical infrastructure and then working with the private sector to harden itself based on the identified threats to that infrastructure; and (3) closing the security gaps that can be most easily closed.

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New York, N.Y.: Hello Mr. Ervin,

As a DHS employee, I was disheartened by the no-action track that put you out of a job with the agency. I just wanted to say that in your short time with the agency, I was impressed by your focus to root out serious waste and fraud in-house. At present, it appears that there are no serious internal investigative measures to keep waste, fraud and abuse in check. One of the largest issues with DHS is the lack of continuity and consistency with its decision and policy makers. And unfortunately, the way I saw it, with the Senate not taking action on reappointing you was just one more case of stripping the agency of any attempt to build it well.

Good luck in all your ventures.

Clark Kent Ervin: Many thanks for your kind words. I would add that my former office, I'm quite sure, is duly pursuing allegations of fraud, waste, and inefficiency, just as I tried to do when I was in office.

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Washington, D.C.: Other than your work auditing for the DHS, what is your actual experience in federal procurement?

Clark Kent Ervin: In addition to being Inspector General of the Dept. of Homeland Security, I was also the Inspector General of the State Department. Familiarity with procurement issues is critically important in the work that Inspectors General are expected to do.

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Washington, D.C.: How do you respond to the widespread perception that your recent news appearances are sour grapes - that you are just annoyed that you were not asked to extend your stay as the DHS IG?

Clark Kent Ervin: I'm not sure how "widespread" this perception is. But, surely there are people, like you, who feel this way. To you and other such people, I'd simply point out that, when the facts warranted it (which, sadly, was often), I was likewise critical of the department when I was IN office.

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Scottsdale, Ariz.: What are you going to be doing now that you have left DHS? How would someone contact you?

Clark Kent Ervin: I spend most of my time at the Aspen Institute, a public policy organization based in Washington, where I'm establishing a homeland security program. I'm putting on a series of conferences, seminars, and roundtable discussions examining various aspects of homeland security, with a view to making recommendations for improvement that the new leadership team at DHS can embrace. I'm also an analyst/commentator on homeland security related matters at CNN.

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Arlington, Va.: You noted in a recent U.S. News article that TSA contracting is the poster child for contracting dysfunction. Could you explain why you believe that is true - beyond the weary (and far beyond newsworthy) allegations regarding the NCS Pearson and Boeing contracts?

Clark Kent Ervin: There are examples upon examples. Aside from the two contracts you cite, there's the nearly 500,000 no-bid contract to hold an awards ceremony, and, the $19 million contract to build a state-of-the art operations center. About a half a million was set aside under that contract for silk plants and art work.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: My question is not directly related to the U.S. VISIT contract, but a related matter, the DHS's Visa Security Program. What is DHS doing to make this an effective program in view of the limited applicability of DHS legacy systems? It's my understanding that three years after the Homeland Security Act was passed, there is only one DHS office abroad that focuses on visa security, notwithstanding the mandate of the Act.

Clark Kent Ervin: This is a superb question. Too few people know about the VSO program, and it was supposed to be a key DHS accomplishment. My understanding is exactly as you say. Only one country, Saudi Arabia, has such a program whereby DHS officers, who (presumably) are trained in consular matters, fraud detection techniques, and other counterterrorism skills, oversee the work of State Department consular officers posted abroad to ensure that visas aren't granted to terrorists. The Homeland Security Act indicated that VSOs were ultimately to be placed in every country in the world in which the U.S. has an embassy, unless the Secretary certifies that placing such personnel in a given country wouldn't serve a counterterrorism purpose. So, the presumption is that countries will have such programs. And, yet, only Saudi Arabia does. And, our report last year on the program found that the program there was not working well in practice. This is a huge missed opportunity.

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Scottsdale, Ariz.: What do you believe is the greatest challenge DHS faces in the near future?

Thank you for taking the time to take these questions.

Clark Kent Ervin: I think the biggest issue is getting access to the intelligence that it needs to protect the homeland. We simply can't protect ourselves from every conceivable threat. So, we have to focus our limited time and resources on combating those threats that are most likely to be materialize and that would have the most serious consequences if they were to materialize. But, that requires access to the best available intelligence, and, to date, DHS has been only a bit player in the intelligence community. Now that the entire community has been reorganized from top to bottom, there's a danger that DHS will be further marginalized. I'm hopeful that Secretary Chertoff is making this issue a top priority and that he's working with the new Director of National Intelligence, Amb. John Negroponte, on this issue.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Any time a former official of this administration reports embarrassing shortcomings in its activities, they get painted as "disgruntled". How long can that kind of excuse-making persist before the country suffers significant harm? It seems like accountability has been relegated to the dustbin of "quaint concepts".

Clark Kent Ervin: It's unfortunate, as you suggest, that some people don't understand that Inspectors General are required by law to report whatever problems they find in the departments they oversee and to make recommendations for correcting those problems. In so doing, Inspectors General should not be viewed as disloyal or traitorous. It's in no one's interest for the government to perform as poorly as it sometime does.

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Alexandria, Va.: I am an outside consultant to the Department. One of the chief problems with DHS is the quality of its personnel. There are too many folks hanging on for retirement or in the government for financial security. I have worked previously with the State Department and DoD and the quality of personnel is much higher. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, how can we change the culture at DHS to attract "high achievers"?

Clark Kent Ervin: Well, certainly there are some underperformers at DHS, but that's true in government and the private sector. Likewise, there are many people at the department who are very capable indeed and they're working very hard for far less money than they'd make in the private sector. It is true that DHS has not been perceived as a premier department, and that has prevented it from attracting talent that might otherwise come. This is why I'm generally in favor of giving the department the flexibility that, for example, DOD and CIA have, to pay people who are particularly expert in their fields a bit more money than most, and, generally to use merit rather than seniority as a basis for raises and promotions

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Raleigh, N.C.: "Who".... if anyone - should/will be held accountable for this?

Clark Kent Ervin: If "this" is the poor performance of the department in certain areas, I'd say the managers in those particular areas, and, ultimately, top management.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Several DHS employees reported abuse, fraud, mismanagement etc., that subsequently cost them their jobs after being labeled whistleblowers, i.e., trouble makers. What steps the OIG took to protect the rights of those employees who reported misconduct, to include systematic racial discrimination and retaliation among DHS agencies, especially the Bureau of Immigration&Customs Enforcement and Customs Border Protection? What did Mr. Ridge and the OIG do about these problems?

Clark Kent Ervin: I worked hard to persuade Secretary. Ridge to sign a directive encouraging all employees to exercise their right to report wrongdoing directly to the OIG without first having to report through their management chain. The Secretary was never willing to go that far, and the watered down directive was never widely disseminated to employees with a message from the Secretary indicating that he supported it. ICE and CBP were particularly resistant to this directive, and I know that both discouraged their employees from seeking out OIG for help.

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Washington, D.C.: A Congressional study said that we need about 36,000 more border patrol agents to stop illegal immigration. Shouldn't it be a priority to secure our borders?

Clark Kent Ervin: Absolutely.

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Tucson, Ariz.: Regarding Border Security: Do you believe we need to secure the borders, and if so, to what degree?

Do you believe the upcoming ASI program, America's Shield Initiative will be effective?

Thank you.

Clark Kent Ervin: I certainly believe that we need to secure our borders. "Secure" doesn't mean "close," though. I believe that it's possible to do far more than we're doing and at the same time welcome those who are coming for legitimate purposes of trade, tourism, or study. I'm not familiar with ASI, I'm afraid.

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McLean, Va.: How do you feel about government/private group partnerships to evaluate proposals? For example, DHS using ICH's tools to analyze proposals for the Enterprise Portal initiative.

Clark Kent Ervin: I'm not sure that I understand the question entirely. If the question is whether the department should use a contractor's "tools" to analyze its own product, I'd say no, for obvious conflict of interest reasons. If the question is whether the department should work with contractors to accomplish its mission, the answer is definitely yes, with appropriate oversight of course.

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Washington, D.C.: 1. When did you first discover that you would not be confirmed by the Senate? 2. When did you first discover that you would not be re-nominated by the White House? 3. Wasn't the Presidential recess appointment granted to you in 2003/2004 actually a consolation prize? 4. Did your default on campaign debts (amassed during your unsuccessful bids for political offices in both the State of Texas and Federal legislatures), and subsequent failure to report those campaign debts and default as required by law, play any role in Congress and the Bush administration's decisions to forgo your confirmation and re-nomination, respectively? 5. Would you not agree that the failures noted in item 4, above, are indicative of serious character flaws and, thus, sufficient cause to withdraw your nomination from further consideration for such an important, high fiduciary law enforcement position? 6. What defense or explanation did you offer for the breach noted in item 4, above? 7. After receiving serious complaints of sexual harassment, retaliation, and threats against lives and property emanating from U.S. Department of State employees assigned to the Multinational Force and Observers, how were you, as Department of State Inspector General, able to justify your declining to investigate? 8. Did your successor at the Department of State investigate the matter addressed in item 6, above, and, if so, under what authority? 9. What, if anything, qualifies you as an "expert" on homeland security and counter-terrorism? 10. You once coveted the position of Secretary of State or, alternatively, Director of CIA. Do you believe that you would have made a better choice for DHS Secretary than the Honorable Michael Chertoff? 11. Were your attacks on the Congress, Bush administration, and Department of Homeland Security honest criticisms or, in actuality, a vendetta motivated and fueled by your sense that the Party had betrayed and abandoned you? 12. Do you think you will ever run for political office again or receive another Presidential nomination? 13. Will you change Parties as a result of all this?

Clark Kent Ervin: This appears to be an attack and not a question. You're entitled to launch attacks, but I'm obliged only to answer questions.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I am a firm believer that we need the TSA. I wish to thank each and every TSA team member for his and or hers front line work. But; I do have a question. How could the TSA choose the company CPS Human Resources to be the prime contractor for all screener hiring? I have carefully reviewed the original RFP for the project. CPS had nor has the qualifications that the RFP makes representations of.

Clark Kent Ervin: I'm afraid that I'm not familiar with the contract to which you refer. I agree that we need an entity to perform TSA's functions, though.

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Maryland: Can we trust the DHS with airplane shoot-down authority?

Clark Kent Ervin: I think we can. To my mind, it makes sense that this key homeland security related mission should be performed by the Department of Homeland Security.

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Shoot-down: Er, who pays for damage done to D.C. homes by plane debris or errant missiles? DHS? The pilot's estate?

Clark Kent Ervin: I'm not sure about that.

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Wheaton, Md.: So, where do we get the biggest return for our money, fancy new high-tech equipment or improved training?

Clark Kent Ervin: It's not an either-or proposition, I'm afraid. We need more and better training, and we need more and better equipment.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Does all the money generated by airport security fees and taxes go into the DHS budget?

Clark Kent Ervin: The security fees should go to TSA's budget. Taxes may be a different story, depending upon the nature of the "tax."

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Clark Kent Ervin: I have enjoyed this opportunity to interact with readers who share my interest in the critically important issue of homeland security.

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


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