The department itself is a dog’s breakfast of 22 federal agencies brought together in the hope of providing better coordination on a common mission. But turf battles left key antiterror agencies like the FBI out of the reorganization, and DHS finished last or next to last on every measure of employee morale in a 2006 Office of Personnel Management study.
The truth, as analyst Jeffrey Rosen points out, is that DHS is ‘an institutional money pit that has more to do with symbols than substance.” Indeed, a congressional investigation in 2008 documented some $15 billion in failed contracts that have run wildly over budget or been cancelled before completion.
Many of the contracts that DHS considers a success have funded a growing federal assault on privacy. The fishing village of Dillingham, AK (pop. 2,400), is too small for a streetlight, but thanks to a homeland security grant, it now has 80 surveillance cameras.
The town of Ridgely, MD (pop. 1,400), got a grant for cameras as well. “It was difficult to be able to find something to use the money for,” said Ridgely’s police chief, but “if you don’t ask, you aren’t going to get a thing.”
Other homeland security grants have gone toward the development of the Transportation Security Administration’s “nude scanner,” which should add a whole new level of indignity to the airport security line experience, in which we’re already poked and prodded, and warned not to joke about the poking.
True enough, even if DHS were abolished, it wouldn’t make government much smaller. Most of the department’s 200,000 employees work for agencies–Customs, the Coast Guard, INS–that would survive DHS’s closure. (Though we could at least stop work on the hideous, 38‐acre, $4 billion Nebraska Avenue Complex currently being built in Southeast DC).
Shuttering DHS would be largely symbolic; but symbolism matters. Down to its very name–an “abhorrently un‐American, odiously Teutono/Soviet term,” in the words of James Fallows–the Department of Homeland Security has stood for bureaucratic centralization in an atmosphere of permanent crisis.
In this season of angry town hall meetings, liberals have taken to defending the recent overwrought DHS memo warning about “Rightwing Extremism.” But for all his faults, “No Drama” Obama has resisted the temptation to boost his popularity by stoking domestic terror fears or goosing the threat level. But, as his popularity falls, that option may look increasingly attractive.
In July, DHS secretary Janet Napolitano announced the formation of a bipartisan commission to review the terror alert system, perhaps seeking political cover to scrap it in its current form. That’s good news. But one wishes Congress had the political will to scrap the department as a whole.
Once upon a time, some 15 years ago, “reform” meant trying to get rid of useless, liberty‐threatening cabinet departments. If the GOP ever recovers that spirit, they could do worse than starting with the DHS.