Arguably the biggest legacy of 9/11 — at least for those of us tracking the federal government — is the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, now the third-largest Cabinet department that is home to 22 previously-disparate agencies responsible for everything from patrolling the waters to airport security, immigration, counterterrorism and disaster response and recovery.
In the early days, “We were involved in a merger, acquisition, dot-com startup and international conglomerate all at once,” Stephen McHale, the first deputy administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, said in a report released this week about challenges top department officials faced in establishing the department. (Colleague Joe Davidson also wrote about the report on Tuesday.)
On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledged the difficulties, saying that “building a federal department out of 22 agencies and creating that joint effort and so forth is a very challenging management task.” She said her predecessors, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, “did a good job of it and gave me a good basis from which to work.”
Much of that work is detailed in the report, which includes several notable anecdotes — some new, some old, but all worth highlighting here:
— In the early days, top DHS officials attempted to salvage and celebrate the history of older, storied agencies like the Coast Guard and Secret Service, which now found themselves amid smaller, newer agencies. And officials failed miserably with attempts to tie everyone together by using common uniforms for the department’s law enforcement agencies. “I thought the Border Patrol would en masse walk out and quit” if the plan went through, said former White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend.
— The merger brought together more than 2,000 different services conducted by the agencies. It required reconciling 15 basic and 12 special pay systems, 10 hiring methods, eight overtime pay rates, seven different payrolls and benefit systems, five locality pay systems, 19 performance management systems and 17 labor unions.
— Congress gave the Bush administration just 60 days to stand up the new department after authorizing the merger in November 2002. Ridge, the department’s first secretary, was confirmed on Jan. 22, 2003, and two days later he arrived at his office: a double cubicle in a building at 18th and G Sts. NW in Washington — hardly the corner-office glamor enjoyed by his Cabinet-level colleagues. Shortly after his arrival, a Coast Guard warrant officer arrived and handed Ridge an official Coast Guard travel card so he could travel on behalf of DHS.
— As the newest Cabinet-level department, Ridge complained of having little political clout. The White House rebuffed his attempts to replace Michael Brown as head of FEMA before Hurricane Katrina hit, and to open a new DHS regional office in New Orleans. He also lost several disputes between DHS and the Justice Department regarding his attempts to change the name and focus of DHS’s several law enforcement agencies.
— When Chertoff took over in 2005, he had 26 people directly reporting to him. Six months later, all but five or six had been replaced, according to his former deputy, Michael Jackson. The initial turnover sparked upheaval across the department, with more than half of senior DHS employees either resigning or transferring to a different department in 2005 and 2006. The turnover most adversely affected TSA and FEMA, which would later suffer embarrassing setbacks. At FEMA, almost one in four positions were vacant when Hurricane Katrina hit.
— Congressional oversight was and remains a big barrier. About 88 House and Senate committees and subcommittees maintain authority over parts of DHS and there’s been no effort to consolidate the oversight. Chertoff said the large number of committees caused distractions for him ”It’s not just the amount of time spent on reporting, it’s the conflicting direction” from different committees, he said. (Napolitano said Tuesday that she has testified 24 times to different committees in her almost three years on the job, “and I think that’s significantly more than my colleagues” in the Cabinet.)
The report, “Securing the Future: Management Lessons of 9/11”, is by the Partnership for Public Service and the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. The Post maintains a content deal with the Partnership.
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