No national institution has been more damaged than the Department of Homeland Security. The youngest of the federal departments, the DHS is among the largest by employee count, ranking just below the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs. It was created in 2003 by smashing together 17 agencies from five departments in an ill-conceived response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Its divisions and agencies are now largely leaderless, because the White House refuses to nominate senior managers to replace those who have left. Quick, who is the secretary of homeland security?
You get my point.
Trump has done far more damage to the DHS, however, than leaving it leaderless. He has branded it as the department that cages children, swoops innocent citizens off U.S. streets, sends warriors dressed for the apocalypse to deal with protests, hunts down hard-working people doing “essential jobs” to forcibly deport them, and harasses foreign students at leading universities. The DHS has become synonymous with unsympathetic government overreach, malevolence and dysfunction.
For the patriotic, underpaid Americans working hard in the agencies of the DHS, what Trump has done to their reputations is a tragedy. The department, however, was doomed from the start. When such an agency was proposed before the Sept. 11 attacks, I was working in the White House, where I coordinated many “homeland” issues for almost a decade under President Bill Clinton and, later, President George W. Bush. Blocking the creation of the DHS was one of the few things on which Vice President Dick Cheney and I agreed. We thought that such a department would be too large, too diverse in function and too difficult to integrate into a well-functioning institution.
Congressional leaders, however, wanted to “do something” after 9/11, and it became impossible for the Bush administration to maintain its opposition to the idea of a homeland security agency. Instead, the Bush administration embraced it and quickly merged a raft of agencies ripped from their home departments. The new department never really came together.
For more than a decade, reports from the Government Accountability Office, think tanks and congressional committees have documented the failures of the DHS to coalesce into an effective entity. Its image steadily declined and was not helped by the popular television series “Homeland,” which despite its name depicted a dark world of CIA intrigue, portraying missions and functions that the DHS never actually had.. Contrary to popular belief, Homeland Security has never been the government’s lead counterterrorism entity. The FBI, part of the Justice Department, leads counterterrorism efforts within the United States.
The next administration would be well advised not to try to make the existing DHS structure work, for it will end up as another presidential administration that has failed in that task. Instead, the department should be reimagined — perhaps as part of a Reinventing Government effort, the first of which was led by then-Vice President Al Gore — with more manageable and mission-consistent entities. It should also shed its Orwellian name.
Federal departments and agencies develop personalities and images from their mission, and they attract people who identify with those personas. These identities are almost immutable, but new organizational designs and branding can reinvigorate and redirect agencies. Breaking up the DHS could have positive results.
One possibility would be to create a Department of Public Safety and Protection composed of the agencies engaged in protecting Americans on water, in cyberspace, in air travel and after natural disasters, as well as protecting U.S. leaders. A Department of Public Safety and Protection could include the Coast Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the cyber agency CISA, Transportation Security Administration and the Secret Service. Such a smaller department could be better integrated into a well-functioning whole, with an improved public image, fewer agencies, greater transparency and positive outreach.
That would result in a second group focused solely on international portals and the controlled movement of people and goods through them, perhaps named Customs, Immigration and Borders. Integrating the current Customs and Border Protection agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement into one coherent organization could open opportunities for more attractive career ladders, as well as creating cost savings. The new agency could be either a stand-alone federal department or report to the attorney general as part of the Justice Department.
Other designs have been suggested and could be considered. Almost any would have a greater possibility of success than trying to make the overly large DHS work well and be well regarded by citizens. That has already proved to be mission impossible.