Department of Homeland Security

Last updated January 1, 2006 7:00 am (EST)

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What is the Department of Homeland Security?

It’s the newest cabinet department, approved by Congress in November 2002. It’s designed to consolidate U.S. defenses against terrorist attack and to better coordinate counterterrorism intelligence. Incorporating parts of eight other cabinet departments, it is the first new government department since the Veterans Affairs Department in 1989.

What does the Department of Homeland Security do?

The department is designed to absorb several federal agencies dealing with domestic defense, including the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, and the Transportation Security Administration (which was created after September 11 to oversee airline security). Its responsibilities include exploring ways to respond to terror attacks and working to better coordinate intelligence about terrorist threats. The department is also expected to implement much of the National Strategy for Homeland Security, the domestic security plan unveiled by President Bush in July 2002.

What is the organizational structure of the department?

When Michael Chertoff took over as the second head of the DHS in 2005, he instituted a number of structural changes including merging twenty-two federal agencies into the department, the largest government reorganization in half a century. The Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], for example, was relieved of its catastrophe-prevention duties in order to focus solely on responding to terror attacks and natural disasters. A new Directorate for Preparedness took over FEMA’s work with states and local officials to develop response plans. The notoriously error-prone Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate [IAIP] was broken up. One of the few components of DHS that did not exist prior to 2003, IAIP included mini-golf courses on a list of critical infrastructure and placed members of Congress on the “no-fly list,” among other embarrassments. Information analysis is now conducted in a newly-formed Office of Intelligence and Analysis,. A Directorate of Policy, headed by its own undersecretary, coordinates the efforts of the various DHS agencies to ensure that consistent policies are set and followed. Before the reorganization, many of the department’s agencies—such as the Transportation Security Administration, Secret Service, and Border Patrol—had their own, relatively independent policy shops.

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The effectiveness of these structural changes was questioned in September 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, killing more than a thousand people and flooding the city for weeks. Critics believed the merger of these separate emergency response agencies into the DHS umbrella led almost directly to FEMA’s poor planning, lack of communication, and slow response to the hurricane.

Did the Bush administration initially want a cabinet department on homeland security?

No. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Bush administration tried a more modest restructuring of America ’s homeland defenses by creating a White House office to handle domestic security, headed by Tom Ridge . But congressional critics warned that the White House homeland security office fell short, noting that federal agencies were trying to buck Ridge’s oversight and that Ridge had no budgetary authority over the agencies he sought to coordinate. Ridge, a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and close friend of President Bush, was confirmed in January 2003 as secretary of the new homeland security department. He resigned in 2004.

Was this a major government overhaul?

Yes. Bush administration officials say the federal government hasn’t seen such sweeping changes since 1947, when President Truman merged the War and Navy departments into the Department of Defense. Even experts unconvinced by that claim say that the department’s creation represents a major governmental restructuring.

Was one federal agency responsible for domestic security before September 11?

No. Earlier terrorist attacks—especially the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building, and the 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system—sparked discussions about the need for such an office, and before September 11 several blue-ribbon commissions and congressional leaders recommended that the federal government create one. Nevertheless, homeland security remained low on the political radar screen until after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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