[ISN] Infighting Cited at Homeland Security
isn at c4i.org
Wed Feb 2 06:09:41 EST 2005
By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 2, 2005
As its leadership changes for the first time, the Department of
Homeland Security remains hampered by personality conflicts,
bureaucratic bottlenecks and an atmosphere of demoralization,
undermining its ability to protect the nation against terrorist
attack, according to current and former administration officials and
Although the 22-month-old department has vast powers over the lives of
travelers, immigrants and citizens, it remains a second-tier agency in
the clout it commands within President Bush's Cabinet, the officials
said. Pockets of dysfunction are scattered throughout the
180,000-employee agency, they said.
There is wide consensus that the agency has made important strides in
a number of areas, including establishing high-speed communications
links with state and local authorities, researching sensors to detect
explosives and biopathogens, and addressing vulnerabilities in the
nation's aviation system. Its weaknesses, including scant progress in
protecting thousands of U.S. chemical plants, rail yards and other
elements of the nation's critical infrastructure, have received
considerable public attention as well.
Less well known is the role that turf battles, personal animosities
and bureaucratic hesitancy have played in limiting the headway made by
the infant department, an amalgam of 22 federal agencies that Congress
merged after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said.
* The department made little progress protecting infrastructure
because officials spent much of their time on detailed strategic
plans for that task and believed they were technically prohibited
by law from spending money on most such efforts. Others in
government disagreed, and DHS officials did not reword the technical
legal language until recent months.
* Two arms of the department gridlocked over efforts to secure
hazardous chemicals on trains -- one of Congress's most feared
* Lengthy delays in deciding which agency would take the lead in
tracking people and cargo at U.S. ports of entry resulted from
similar disputes. Efforts to develop tamper-proof shipping
containers were among the initiatives stalled.
* The department's investigative arm, Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (ICE), has operated under severe financial crisis for
more than a year -- to the point that use of agency vehicles and
photocopying were at times banned. The problem stems from funding
disputes with other DHS agencies.
Richard A. Falkenrath, who until last May was Bush's deputy homeland
security adviser, said many officials at the department were so
inexperienced in grasping the levers of power in Washington, and so
bashful about trying, that they failed to make progress on some
"The department has accomplished a great deal in immensely difficult
circumstances, but it could have accomplished even more if it had had
more aggressive and experienced staff," said Falkenrath, now a fellow
at the Brookings Institution. "It would have done better if it had
been less timid, less insular and less worried about facing down
internal and external opposition."
"This department is immensely powerful in society, given its central
role in foreign trade, immigration and transportation," he added. "But
it is far less powerful in interagency meetings and the White House
Michael Chertoff, a federal appeals court judge who is Bush's nominee
to succeed the department's first secretary, Tom Ridge, begins
confirmation hearings today. He has been described as a no-nonsense
administrator who would not hesitate to intercede in turf wars or get
tough with recalcitrant bureaucrats.
Homeland Security leaders accept many of the criticisms of the
department's performance by government officials and experts but
reject others as unfair. "Nobody fully understands the complexity of
our task: to build a department out of 22 agencies, operate it,
reorganize it, and design and build networks and systems that will
defend the nation in perpetuity," said Ridge, who stepped down
yesterday. Ridge is widely credited with managing the first phase of
the most complicated government reorganization since the 1940s. But
the former Pennsylvania governor also is noted for having a
politician's desire to please all comers, which resulted in some
policy quandaries remaining unaddressed for long periods, officials
and experts said.
Top DHS officials point out that much of their time has been spent
crafting eight huge internal initiatives. Finished in some cases only
in recent weeks, they map out the department's new information
technology, payroll, personnel, procurement and other systems.
Among other time-consuming initiatives were laying out new doctrines
for counterterrorism preparedness that assigned the responsibilities
of many agencies before and after an attack. Almost all this work,
which involved tedious vetting by dozens of agencies, is now complete,
but it was invisible to the public and will yield results only in the
future, officials said.
"These are a family of plans coming into play that's received
virtually no publicity," said retired Coast Guard Adm. James M. Loy,
deputy secretary of homeland security, who is widely described as the
department's strongest manager. "When he comes, we want to say, 'Judge
Chertoff, here is the strategic plan.' "
All the while, Homeland Security has had to contend with the daily
demands of searching air travelers, patrolling harbors, protecting the
president, distributing threat warnings to state and local agencies,
and many other duties.
But several current and former officials said the department remains
underfinanced and understaffed and suffers from weak leadership.
"DHS is still a compilation of 22 agencies that aren't integrated into
a cohesive whole," said its recently departed inspector general, Clark
Kent Ervin, who released many critical reports and was not reappointed
after a falling-out with Ridge. Asked for examples of ineffectiveness,
he replied: "I don't know where to start. . . . I've never seen
anything like it."
Ervin cited a report from his office last month that DHS immigration
inspectors had continued to let dozens of people using stolen foreign
passports enter the United States -- even after other governments had
notified the agency of the passport numbers. Using stolen passports is
a well-known tactic of al Qaeda operatives.
Even when immigration officials realized someone had entered the
United States on a stolen passport, they did not routinely notify
sister agencies that track illegal immigrants, the report said.
When officials made missteps such as this, Ridge rarely intervened,
Ervin said. "Tom Ridge is a prince of a man, but he's not a tough
guy," he said.
"Nobody's kicking anybody to do things" at Homeland Security, said
Seth Stodder, former policy and planning director at the department's
Customs and Border Protection agency. "There's a reluctance to make
decisions that will be unpopular with the loser, so things just
Stodder and other government officials said the department's main
problem is that, under pressure from the White House to keep staffing
lean, it lacks a policy staff to study its largest strategic
challenges. The Pentagon, by contrast, has 2,000 people doing that, he
"It's very thinly staffed at the top of DHS, and there's no policy
vision . . . thinking through the main threats," Stodder said. In the
absence of such strategic thinking, he added, "DHS practices
management by inbox, getting distracted by daily emergencies" such as
a congressman's complaint about a late-arriving passport.
Acknowledging that the lack of a policy staff was a mistake, DHS
officials say one will be launched within days.
One of the department's biggest failings is its performance securing
the U.S. infrastructure, some members of Congress and administration
officials said. Fifteen people declined requests to apply for the
undersecretary job supervising this area, and the person who took it,
retired Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Libutti, was not confirmed until 2003.
Libutti was unfamiliar with Washington's ways, as was his subordinate
who directly oversaw infrastructure, former Coca-Cola Co. executive
Robert P. Liscouski. Both became distracted by small bureaucratic
obstacles they could have surmounted, other officials said.
Members of Congress and others in the administration have expressed
frustration at what they say are lengthy delays in producing a list of
vulnerable infrastructure sites. Officials involved in infrastructure
protection said some of the delays were caused by Liscouski, who, they
said, at times failed to coordinate with others working on the matter.
He has had several bitter arguments with members of Congress and their
staffs, they said.
Finally, the infrastructure division was at times distracted by
arguments between camps of officials pressing the competing agendas of
firms or other agencies offering plans to secure plants and landmarks,
Liscouski denied that any such disputes distracted his office, and he
denied failing to meet with colleagues. He said he met continually
with them and had "an open-door policy." He disputed suggestions that
his office dragged its feet in securing or preparing lists of
"We worked with a sense of urgency, and we made significant progress,"
he said. "But this work had never been done before, and it was hard."
Liscouski said that until the past few months, technical language in
DHS budgets barred his office from spending money on chemical plants
and other sites. Department officials said that within days they will
announce distribution of $92 million, the first large expenditures for
these purposes. The money will be given to states by a separate DHS
The infrastructure office also has been hobbled by turf fights.
Another DHS agency -- the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), with
45,000 airport screeners -- said that a sentence in a budget law
established it as overseer of security on trains, including ones
moving dangerous chemicals. Hassles between TSA and infrastructure
officials slowed progress, including efforts to secure chemicals that
travel on tracks near the U.S. Capitol, for a year, officials said.
"I'm sorry to say, since 9/11 we have essentially done nothing" to
secure chemical plants and trains carrying chemicals, Falkenrath told
Congress last week. "This [issue] stands out as an enormous
vulnerability we had the authority to address."
The TSA's claims that it supervises all transportation security also
led to fights with DHS agencies that handle immigration and customs.
The struggles delayed progress for a year on developing anti-tampering
technology for shipping containers and deciding which databases to use
to track foreigners and cargo entering the country, officials said.
The fighting amounted to "a civil war within the U.S. government," one
former official said.
Eventually Ridge decided that the TSA should not lead the way on these
issues. But an authoritative study released in December by the Center
for Strategic and International Studies and the Heritage Foundation
concluded that the TSA's actions led to years-long "policy impasses."
It said the DHS section that oversees the agencies involved, and which
refereed the struggles -- Border and Transportation Security -- was
"not particularly effective" in straightening it out.
Several officials described the undersecretary for Border and
Transportation Security, former representative Asa Hutchinson
(R-Ark.), as a consensus-builder who had difficulty demanding an end
to the turf fights. Especially troublesome was a personality conflict
between the affable Hutchinson and one of his subordinates, Robert C.
Bonner, the aggressive head of Customs and Border Protection, whose
airport and seaport inspectors investigate people and cargo.
"There were knock-down, drag-out meetings every day" between leaders
in some parts of the department, said Loy, who added that "management
styles can pour gasoline" on such arguments. But he said the fights
are now resolved.
Asked about conflicts with Bonner, Hutchinson said: "I'd be enormously
disappointed if I didn't have agency leaders who leaned forward and
fought for their agencies." But, he added, "people who work under me
know I make decisions."
Through a spokesman, Bonner declined to comment.
Loy, who once ran the TSA and will step down March 1, said the
Homeland Security Department is fated to be criticized for its public
failures, such as creating long lines at airports, and rarely praised
for its success protecting the country.
"Most of the publicity is bad, but that's the nature of our work," he
said. "We operate in a fishbowl."
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