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A Sharper Focus

Author: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
July 22, 2002
The Baltimore Sun

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House Republican leaders have drafted legislation creating a Department of Homeland Security, making a few changes to President Bush's proposal but failing to deal with its main flaw: It tries to do too much.

Mr. Bush was right to propose creating a new department. The homeland security task has long been treated as an afterthought, with more than 100 federal agencies claiming a role.

Good organization cannot guarantee security, but bad organization invites disaster.

Yet when it comes to reorganizing the federal government, caution is warranted. No reorganization has ever been done right the first time. The 1947 decision to create the Defense Department— which Mr. Bush's proposal matches in importance—had to be revamped only two years later.

Caution is not a characteristic of Mr. Bush's plan, though. It proposes combining 22 agencies under one roof. They each bring their expertise in homeland security. They also bring a long list of non-homeland security responsibilities, ranging from rescuing boaters to stopping counterfeiters. This mission diversity makes Mr. Bush's proposal far more ambitious than the 1947 defense organization.

The danger of throwing homeland and non-homeland security responsibilities together is that either mission or both of them could end up being poorly served. A department focused on stopping terrorists will be tempted to give a lower priority to cleaning up oil spills. The political pressures to help flood victims could divert the agency from its security mission.

No reorganization can avoid this problem entirely. Most agencies have multiple missions. But a more focused, strategically directed reorganization could diminish it substantially.

Such a reorganization would target what Sept. 11 revealed to be our most pressing weaknesses: border security, critical infrastructure protection and intelligence analysis of the terrorist threat.

The good news is that, shorn of its excesses, Mr. Bush's proposal contains the elements of a sound, strategically directed reorganization. The core of his plan would create what Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has called a "common face at the border" as customs officers, immigration agents and agricultural inspectors are merged into a single organization.

The Coast Guard and the new Transportation Security Administration, which also play an essential role in protecting our borders and air transportation, would also join the new agency.

The administration also acted wisely in proposing to give the new department responsibility to protect critical infrastructure. It is essential to protect the energy, transportation and computer networks on which our well-being rests. This is a relatively new federal mission that will only grow in importance. Putting it in the new department gives it the priority it deserves.

Finally, it makes sense to charge the agency with analyzing and assessing terrorist threats to the United States. Here the president's proposal does not go far enough. The new department needs a larger unit that is charged with examining all intelligence and law enforcement information (including all "raw" data) pertaining to terrorist threats to the country.

A strategically directed reorganization along these lines would leave out half the agencies the administration proposes to fold into the new department. Among them would be the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the one agency most likely to divert the new department from its main job. Floods in Texas, fires in Arizona and earthquakes in California are routine occurrences with major political consequences. They could quickly become the new homeland secretary's top priority.

The service functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service would also not transfer to the department. As House Republicans recognized their draft legislation, INS' naturalization and immigration functions are better served in the Justice Department.

Creating a Department of Homeland Security focused on border security, critical infrastructure and intelligence analysis would still be a monumental task. With more than 155,000 employees, it would be the third-largest Cabinet department after Defense and Veterans Affairs. And it would face a massive challenge to mold many different organizational cultures and capabilities into a new, coherent whole.

Once the new department is up and running smoothly, Washington could revisit the question of whether it makes sense to add more agencies and missions to the mix.

Before we have demonstrated that we can make a focused department work, it would be foolish to do too much. If we do, we will discover that doing more can accomplish less.