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Prospects for the Homeland Security Department: The 1947 Analogy

Published 09/12/2002 James Jay Carafano
Congress has returned from its summer recess to take up again the administration’s proposal creating a Department of Homeland Security. There is a good deal of work left to do. When the president introduced his plan, he described it as the most sweeping reorganization of the federal government since the outbreak of the Cold War when the National Security Act of 1947 unified the Armed Forces under a single department and created the National Security Council (NSC) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).1 The reference to the National Security Act is apt. An assessment of the prospects for the new department suggests it may encounter three major problems reminiscent of the obstacles faced in organizing to confront the Soviet Union during the early years of the Cold War.
  • “It is not all that it seems.” The proposal for a Department of Homeland Security is far less sweeping than the name of the department implies. The president’s legislation does not address all the current, critical organizational deficiencies that exist with respect to protecting the homeland.
  • “The devil is in the details.” Compromises in standing-up the department could result in an organization that is incapable of delivering the promised efficiencies and reducing overlap, duplication, and overhead.
  • “Things may get worse before they get better.” In the short term the government’s effectiveness in providing homeland security may decline as organizations transferred to the department adapt to new lines of authority and develop appropriate practices, systems, and organizational cultures.
This analysis reviews the administration’s proposal, the major modifications offered in the House (H.R. 5005) and Senate (S. 2452) versions of the bill, and outlines the advantages reorganization could bring to the task of protecting the nation. It then explores the difficulties that may lie ahead. The comparison to the last great reorganization of the federal government in 1947 raises some troubling issues for the new Homeland Security Department. This assessment concludes action is needed to provide: additional initiatives and reforms in the areas of law enforcement and intelligence; substantially more budgetary resources; and, an even greater and more formalized role for the Executive Office of the President in orchestrating homeland security activities.
The Plan The rationale for combining numerous federal agencies, programs, and facilities under a single Homeland Security Department parallels the thinking behind the formulation of the 1947 National Security Act, consolidating key assets into one big, powerful organization and creating the means to orchestrate that department’s efforts with other federal activities. Large, centralized organizations have drawbacks, the most obvious being managing a vast bureaucracy.2 But big organizations can also have great strengths, to include providing unity of purpose, a wealth of capabilities, economies of scale, and fostering a common institutional culture and practices that build trust and confidence, and facilitate coordinated action. Large federal departments with sizable budgets also hold the attention of official Washington, increasing the likelihood that policymakers will provide proper oversight for the task of protecting the homeland, an important factor considering that terrorist threats may be enduring as well. For these reasons, the president’s proposal to create the Homeland Security Department makes eminent sense.
The proposed department would provide an appropriate core capability for protecting the homeland by combining agencies and activities that make major contributions to the most critical homeland security tasks, providing the means to: 1) prevent terrorist attacks from entering the United States; 2) protect against attacks by reducing vulnerabilities; and 3) respond to mitigate the effects of an attack. In addition, the proposed department would provide a science and technology base for developing future capabilities to support each of these efforts.
The administration’s plan calls for a department comprising of four major divisions: border and transportation security; information analysis and infrastructure protection; emergency preparedness and response; and chemical, biological, and nuclear-related countermeasures.3 The House and Senate versions of the legislation modified this proposal.4 Key differences are noted below, but for the most part, under each plan the department would be created by shifting existing resources and responsibilities.
Border and Transportation Security Division. This organization will assume responsibility for controlling the borders and monitoring the flow of people, goods, and services. In addition, while not assuming control of the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, it will have the authority to establish rules and regulations governing the issuance of visas. The Border and Transportation Security Division will also include: more


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