Dollars, Sense

Before President Bush had even revealed his first budget for the Department of Homeland Security, Democrats were preparing to pounce. The day before Bush unveiled his budget, presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) accused him of shortchanging homeland security. The next day, according to The New York Times, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) alleged that Bush's budget reflects the "quirky notion of the White House that you can improve homeland security without spending the dollars." Another Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) is already on record as accusing Bush of not doing enough. In fact, a game of sorts has emerged between Lieberman and Edwards as to who can accuse Bush most vociferously of underfunding domestic security. And Democrats are now putting the finishing touches on their most extensive critique to date of the president's budget for next year, alleging (again) that Bush is stinting on homeland security. Their political strategy is clear: Accuse the administration of giving too little money to security and too much to the rich. But that strategy is dead wrong.

Bush's problem is not that he's doing too little for national security but that he's doing it incorrectly, frittering away precious resources on ill-conceived programs of nightmarishly large bureaucratic proportions but little security benefit. Rather than call for more money to be spent on homeland security, Democrats should be taking a hard look at how Bush is spending the money he already has. And if they did, they would find ample grounds on which to criticize the president.

Take, for example the administration's approach to immigration policy, which will fall under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security starting March 1. Last July, Attorney General John Ashcroft revived a law from 1952 that requires noncitizens to send the Immigration and Naturalization Service a card within 10 days of changing their permanent address. The original intentions behind the law were pragmatic: Noncitizens who had business with the INS wanted the agency to know their whereabouts, and the INS needed to be able to inform them of changes in law. But it was drawn up at a time when immigrants and visitors were less mobile, and eventually fell into disuse because it was unenforceable. As former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner notes, the law was dropped because "registering where people are was just too fast a moving train to keep the info current."

Meissner was right. Within a few months of the law's reinstatement, more than 700,000 cards were sent in to the INS -- at least 200,000 of which were lost in a former mine that is now an INS storage facility in Kansas City, Mo. It is difficult to understand the security value of this measure, as the only way to have confirmed the veracity of each card would have been to call every foreigner individually -- a prohibitively time-consuming task. Not only was the entire undertaking a colossal waste of time, but the INS had to outsource the processing of some of the cards to the private sector.

Other measures haven't fared much better. An Ashcroft-imposed special registration program -- targeting nonimmigrant visitors (such as students, businessmen and tourists) from 25 Arab and Muslim countries and North Korea -- requires INS officers to register, and FBI agents to interview, tens of thousands of individuals. The program has led to more than 1,200 detentions, but not a single person found through the program has been charged with a terrorist-related crime. Other broad sweeps of Arab and Muslim visitors have led to deportations but no terrorist charges.

According to Theresa Brown, director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, increased security checks on business travelers have led to delays and backlogs in visa approval. "What took a couple of weeks now takes a couple of months," she says. One of the checks requires an extra clearance on individuals traveling to the United States on business from the same 26 countries targeted by the INS registration program. According to Ed Rice, of the Coalition For Employment Through Exports (an industry group of exporters), visa clearance has sometimes taken four months, imposing a variety of burdens on American business. Foreigners can't get visas in time to attend business meetings or trade shows in the United States, which in turn has led American companies to lose contracts, undermining international business partnerships (all on the watch of a president who is supposedly committed to free trade). Poor planning and overly broad targeting of immigrant groups appears to be the culprit here. In other words, the main problem isn't inadequate funding, it's that the Bush administration is wasting money on clumsy, bureaucracy-intensive schemes.

In addition, individuals working with asylum seekers -- such as recently arrived Haitians -- have told me that because of increased security precautions, lengths of detentions have increased, even for those who have already been approved and are not believed to pose a criminal or terrorist threat. Needless detentions cost money -- a boon for private security companies such as Wackenhut or Corrections Corporation of America, with whom the INS has contracts, but a drain on the homeland-security budget.

These blanket policies may have made the government look like it is fighting terrorism, but they have done little to increase security. The few apprehensions since September 11 have come from actual human intelligence and the targeting of specific activities, rather than going after broad swaths of foreigners based on nationality or religion.

And there's more. Ashcroft may have failed to establish Operation TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System) -- which would have deputized such individuals as truck drivers and mail carriers -- but the Total Information Awareness program (or TIA, which, along with related programs, will cost $2 billion over seven years) is being spearheaded by the Pentagon under the aegis of improved security.

For the emerging bureaucracy of homeland security, largesse and inefficiency are problems more money will only cover up, not solve. Hiring more people and overlooking waste while smoothing out a few token kinks may appear patriotic and politically easy for progressives, but it's lousy policy. The Democrats should be scrutinizing already-existing programs before asking for funding for new ones. They seem to be banking on the notion that calling for more money will make them look tougher on terrorism than Bush. Maybe, for the time being, it will. But, in the end, it's doomed to be an empty sort of toughness -- the kind that doesn't stand up to reason and won't yield results.

Alex Gourevitch is a Prospect writing fellow.