By Douglas Doan

The anniversary of 9/11 brought the same old tired and predictable punditry. Pity. One would hope that the anniversary could have been used in a more thoughtful and contemplative manner with an honest and sober assessment of how well DHS is organized and prepared to solve some of the most perplexing problems involving homeland security.

Last week, experts in and out of government debated the extent and potency of the threat from Muslim extremists. Meanwhile, Secretary Napolitano spent time talking about the fear of attack from homegrown terrorists. But what was most interesting of all is that nobody wanted to talk about the single greatest threat to the nation, which was recently highlighted by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, and then later reinforced by Secretary of State Clinton.

In case you missed it, both Mullen and Clinton identified a new and probably more sinister threat to the nation that if unchecked would erode our national defense, complicate our ability to respond to global crisis, and erode American power. This new threat is not the Taliban, or some bin Laden splinter group, but the ever growing U.S. national debt.

It isn’t hard to understand what has prompted Admiral Mullen and Secretary Clinton to sound the alarm of huge trillion-dollar deficits, forcing the U.S. government to borrow .40 cents of every single dollar spent. To be sure, the numbers are staggering and hard to comprehend, but by 2012, just the interest alone on our national debt will exceed annual DoD expenditures. Think about that for a moment.

The implications to DHS are enormous. After all, since the creation of DHS, the new department has been the recipient of ever larger amounts of federal funding, watching its budget grow faster than any other federal agency – ever. In 2002, the entire DHS budget was a little over $9 billion. By 2011, the budget had climbed to $56.3 billion. No other government agency in American history has seen such an unchecked rise in expenditures, of some 800 percent in 9 years.

It is clear that in the past, when times were good, DHS has simply requested more and more federal dollars to deal with the many homeland security challenges, and the President and Congress mostly complied, adding more and more to the DHS budget. Not too surprisingly, as a direct result just about every single one of the large DHS programs grew and expanded well beyond the original cost estimates. For example, CBP’s ACE program was once a $600 million effort but has now consumed well over $5 billion. US VISIT was originally projected to cost $900 million but actual expenditures are up to $4 billion.

But the days of simply requesting more federal dollars to paper over serious management troubles are over. In the future, DHS, like all other federal agencies, is going to have to be more innovative as it will no longer be able to easily tap additional federal funding. Doing more with less is going to be a huge and new challenge for DHS, and it is rather obvious that DHS leaders at all levels are completely and totally unprepared. But make no mistake, the shock is coming and it will hit hard and fast as DHS, for the first time in its history, is forced to make difficult budgetary decisions and reel in expectations of what it can and cannot do.

The good news is that significant cuts to the DHS budget might be just what the agency needs.

Trimming programs that long ago should have been retired is overdue, and DHS will not be able to continue to afford to carry the dead wood year after year.

The long hoped for goal of integrating the various 22 different original agencies and departments might finally get some traction. With huge and seemingly inexhaustible budgets, many of the legacy agencies were never seriously integrated into a single department. Budgetary constraints may force that integration as it becomes increasingly difficult to justify maintaining the high costs of so many disparate buildings, facilities, training programs, etc.

Perhaps with a little luck we might even see the moribund effort to build more capacity at our nation’s ports of entry (POE) come to life. Everyone understands that building more roads, bridges and infrastructure at our POEs is a crucial national priority to both help expedite the flow of legitimate trade and travel and improve security. But when it comes time to actually build those bridges and roads across the border, political dealing and bureaucratic ineptitude have pushed the resources to the most inconsequential and smallest POEs. Some of these new POEs where DHS has invested millions have fewer than 50 people crossing each day. In another case, a newly renovated POE at a cost of some $6 million in New York was closed down within a few weeks after construction was completed.

Perhaps now, DHS will finally allow the private sector to build and expand roads, bridges and even construct new POEs with private capital and little cost to the government. There are actually all sorts of different plans, none more consequential that a proposed additional span to the Ambassador bridge in Detroit which carries nearly a billion dollars in trade per day across the US-Canadian border. In an era of greater fiscal constraints, it makes no sense for the government to support building a government owned and operated bridge at a cost of some $5 billion when the owners of the existing Ambassador Bridge are willing to expand their bridge at little or no cost to the government.

So let’s hope for the best. The coming fiscal austerity just might force improvements at DHS that are long overdue. One thing is sure, however. The fiscal tsunami is coming.

  • Lt. Uhura

    You got it! Whatever it is, xenophobia or whatever, we are over-focused on external threats to our safety & security instead of internal threats. When we are killing our own at such high numbers, (the South American violence closer to home, or hell, even our highway deaths at 19K/year), we need to quit with the obsession over the Taliban. And before I hear rants about their professed obsession over harming us… I get that. What some people aren't getting is that by dumping all this defensive dollars into Taliban fight, we are giving them what they hope to achieve — a weaker country because that money could have went to shoring up our people and places, our intellectual property and cash power.