In the midst of all of the talk about who will replace Janet Napolitano as the next DHS Secretary, Charles Kenny, a Fellow with the New America Foundation and the Center for Global Development, published an opinion piece in Bloomberg BusinessWeek called, “The Case for Abolishing the DHS.” In it, Kenny relays a number of points that decry the tremendous spending that has gone on under the Department, as well as the “vastly exaggerated assessment of the threat of terrorism.”
Kenny makes some powerfully accurate assessments on the return on investment from DHS and points to recent, eye-popping spending by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Coast Guard to support some of their functions. It’s hard to argue against those numbers as tens of thousands of federal employees are finding themselves with reduced pay and furloughs because of budget sequestration. Other government programs are taking even deeper cuts. In a country that has enthusiastically spent money because they thought it grew on trees, we are finally coming to realize the orchard is bare and the trees are rotting faster than ever thought possible.
As powerful as those arguments and examples may be, Kenny’s ending declaration that “Closing the DHS is a small government solution that works” is a glass-is- half-empty summation that misses some important – and in some cases, unquantifiable – metrics. In accurately pointing out some of the ridiculous things that have received DHS grant funds, he overlooks similar grant investments that have occurred in places like New York City, Boston, Los Angeles and any number of places that have provided training, equipment, coordination and expertise that before DHS was lacking, if not non-existent. For example, following the April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon, cameras captured first responders and medical personnel leaping into action to render aid to the wounded. Where do you think some of the monies and training came from that enabled that to happen?
Additionally when you saw unprecedented coordination going on between federal, state, local, and private sector emergency managers working with federal, state, and local law enforcement to safeguard the community while hunting for the Boston bombing perpetrators , who do you think paid for and helped coordinate some of those meritorious functions?
The tragic, blood-stained successes of Boston did not happen by dumb luck or happenstance. They happened because of investments of grant funds, as well as training and coordination that DHS helped make possible over a number of years. That metric was sadly overlooked by Mr. Kenny and many others. As were the metrics of TSA.
TSA is an often hard-to-defend group. For every cringe-worthy “don’t touch my junk,” frisking of dying grandparent or crying child, we somehow overlook the dozens of guns, knives, explosives and other highly dangerous items that are stopped from getting on a plane. Take a look at their posted weekly reports, along with photos that detail what is stopped by screening, and ask yourself if that is something you want to abolish. Think about that the next time you’re on a plane.
Can TSA be uncomfortable, frustrating and at times infuriating? Absolutely, but I never thought box cutters and other small handheld weapons could be used by 19 people to take down four planes and kill nearly 4,000 people either. Is holding up the oft-used 9/11 terrorist example an extreme one to use to refute the value of DHS to Kenny’s thought-provoking arguments? Probably, but sadly we live in a world of extremes, and I don’t see it getting much kinder either domestically or internationally.
Threats, risks, and methods are ever-evolutionary and creative. Those who want to do us harm are often a step ahead from the conventional perspective, looking for vulnerabilities in our operations. Does that mean we should spend with abandon? Absolutely not. Tough questions and oversight from Congress, the media, and the public always need to be the “check and balance” on those expenditures, as well as the security methods and strategies.
Shutting DHS’ components down and redistributing them back to their points of origin as Kenny suggests is an easy argument to make from the critics armchair, but it ignores some of the cross collaboration and coordination that is happening today that did not exist when DHS’ components were in their previous forms. While DHS will always have its operational and cultural silos, what is happening today is far better than what it was at the start – a fact that even some of the Department’s toughest congressional critics have begrudgingly acknowledged.
Will there be more examples of overspending, screw ups and questionable returns on investments as DHS further matures? Absolutely, but those same problems of overspending, screw ups and questionable returns on investment can be made of every other governmental structure, and often, for members of private industry, NGOs and so on. Recommending that they revert to their original, pre-DHS form is not exactly a recipe for their future effectiveness or long-term contributions.
The tourniquet remedy offered by Mr. Kenny would certainly stop some of the bleeding he accurately detailed, but it is not a prescription that lends itself to the long-term health and welfare of dealing with the interdependent and complex issues of the post-9/11 homeland security era.
Like Mr. Kenny I am a fan of smaller government and often find myself shaking my head at things I see the Department do, wondering “What the…?” However, I’ve been fortunate to work with DHS and have observed for a number of years that for every fault and screw up, there is coordination and teams being assembled across public and private sectors; planning and preparation for a range of complex risks that had never been considered before; investments in personnel, training and equipment that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
As imperfect as DHS is (and always will be), the Department is a glass more than half full, contrary to Mr. Kenny’s tactful arguments about its emptiness and uselessness. DHS will never be able to get credit for the bad days it stops from occurring, or the acknowledgement it deserves when things go the way they should when responding to a disaster such as an Oklahoma twister, a California forest fire, a mid-Atlantic state flood, or an attack in a city.
I think DHS is a glass worth keeping an eye on, and if it is filled with the right leadership at the top (and at all of its other open positions), who knows how fulfilling that glass could be to quenching the thirst of the challenging problems that it was made to serve in the first place?
I’d rather have my hand on that half-full glass than just throw it away in favor of the Dixie-cup strategy offered by Mr. Kenny.