Commentary

Bush Plan Is Just “Do Something”

By Ivan Eland
June 11, 2002

Responding to the embarrassing revelations that the CIA and FBI possessed information that foreshadowed the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, President George W. Bush, in a flip-flop, has endorsed a Department of Homeland Security.

The new department will combine parts of many existing government departments and agencies, including the Coast Guard, Secret Service, Customs Service, Transportation Security Administration, Federal Protective Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Taxpayers might be mystified about the absence of the CIA and FBI in this “reform” initiative, since the main problem surrounding Sept. 11 seemed to be lack of information sharing within and between the two agencies. Omitting those two agencies should arouse suspicion that the initiative is primarily designed to pretend that the administration is doing something, rather than administering much needed “tough love” to the security bureaucracies. The president’s popularity is based primarily on his handling of the war on terrorism - now the signature issue of his presidency. With the recent revelations, public confidence in the government’s ability to combat terrorists had begun to wane. Hence, the need to “do something.”

This same need resulted in the unnecessary federalization of security at airports in the wake of Sept. 11 to calm a jittery flying public and thus provide an indirect subsidy to the airlines. The security provided by private companies up to and including that date did not fail. It was perfectly legal to bring knives and box cutters on board passenger aircraft. Then, as now, the government is taking “for show” measures that demonstrate activity rather than solving the real problem.

Even before the September attacks, the U.S. government had sufficient bureaucratic machinery to deal with terrorist attacks on the homeland without adding a new department. Terrorism had always been a national security issue, under the purview of the president’s National Security Council and national security adviser. But in Washington, the typical response to any crisis is to rearrange organizational charts and add bureaucracies. The real problem revealed by the terrorist attacks is too much bureaucracy - causing too many communication and coordination problems - not too little.

What about the president’s claim that bringing all these disparate agencies under one roof will end duplication? First, intelligence is the key to homeland defense. Within the new department, a center for assessing threats to the homeland will be created. Yet, the director for Central Intelligence is already supposed to be synthesizing intelligence data from the already too numerous agencies of the intelligence community. To perform an identical task for threats specific to the homeland, the new assessment center will also have to rely on data and voluntary cooperation from turf-conscious information producers, including the FBI and CIA. Rather than reducing overlap, the proliferation of organizations that assess intelligence will only exacerbate already well-publicized coordination problems.

Bringing agencies under one cabinet secretary doesn’t guarantee that overhead will be reduced - in fact, the opposite is more probable. Actually improving homeland security would require abolishing agencies, including some of those not being consolidated under the new department; slashing layers of bureaucracy; and laying off bureaucrats. Rare in Washington is the department head who would undertake such a purge. If the president wants to perform such surgery, he must do so before consolidating the agencies under the new secretary.

In other words, the president must cut before pasting, rather than vice versa. Any new secretary will quickly begin to act as an advocate for his new “pasted together” super agency rather than making the needed cuts. That individual, heading a department that would be the third largest bureaucracy in the federal government, would be a powerful proponent of increased funding, personnel and bureaucracy.

For an illustration of bureaucratic expansion on the heels of agency consolidation, one need look no further than the president’s speech announcing the new department. After World War II, President Harry Truman consolidated the War and Navy Departments into the Department of Defense under a new secretary of Defense. Subsequently, over the years, secretaries have created a massive organization - the Office of the Secretary of Defense - to rein in and oversee the military services. Yet more than 50 years later, the individual services still run roughshod over the comparatively weak secretary, and their duplication of effort and lack of coordination are legion. Consolidating even more numerous disparate and sometimes dysfunctional agencies into a new department is likely to result in the same problems and a burgeoning secretarial bureaucracy to attempt to control the whole unwieldy cacophony.

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.