The Homeland Security Muddle

When word leaked that the Department of Defense had funded a scheme to allow investors to use futures-market analysis to predict the likelihood of terrorist acts or international incidents -- and to profit if their predictions were correct -- the public reacted with both shock and awe. The $8 million idea, known as the Futures Markets Applied to Prediction (FutureMAP), was the brainchild of retired Adm. John Poindexter, an indicted figure in the Iran-Contra scandal. The plan would have allowed online betting by terrorism specialists regarding the likelihood of, for example, another attack in Israel or the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy. The idea was to use a bettors' market to provide government specialists access to what the best thinkers were anticipating. Not surprisingly, it was quickly canceled. Poindexter soon thereafter resigned his post as head of the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency's Terrorism Information Awareness program -- the same program that previously had drawn fire for its proposal to track potential terrorists via broadly scouring Americans' credit-card records, driver's licenses and passport applications.

For Democrats, FutureMAP was an obvious target. "The idea of a federal betting parlor on atrocities and terrorism is ridiculous and it's grotesque," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). But when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld concurred -- even if it had been a brilliant idea, which I doubt, it would not have been able to function in the environment that it was created -- FutureMAP became just a lively August imbroglio. The story was over.

It shouldn't be. Behind FutureMAP lie the broader flaws in the administration's domestic-preparedness policy. An effective national-preparedness policy requires three things. First, a coordinating agency with authority to set comprehensive federal policy; second, an agency willing to use that authority to establish clear and effective strategies; and, finally, a recognition that a domestic-preparedness policy must not only prepare for and prevent terrorist attacks but also ensure that such efforts don't threaten a free society. The FutureMAP story reveals that this administration's policy lacks all three elements.

At first blush, it might seem like the administration has in place an effective coordinating agency. When President Bush switched gears in June 2002 and accepted Democratic congressional proposals to establish a Department of Homeland Security (DHS), he conceded the need for a permanent, centralized agency with budget authority over the domestic-preparedness mission. That change reflected a grudging recognition that the White House Office of Homeland Security, set up right after the terrorist attacks of September 11, was simply too weak. To rectify that, the new department was given direct supervisory and budgetary control over 22 agencies, plus its very own secretary, Tom Ridge.

Behind the headlines, however, the behemoth known as the DHS is less than what it seems. Guided by advisers from the Defense and Justice departments and the CIA, the administration ensured that the DHS has quite limited authority. So, now, while the DHS oversees a number of areas -- everything from federal airline safety to federal responses to hurricanes and floods -- it has no authority to oversee the counterterrorism activity and priorities of other agencies. These include the Defense Department, the Justice Department and the CIA, the very agencies that are crucial for homeland defense. Instead of streamlining our domestic preparedness strategy, the DHS has simply become another agency added to the mix, equal but not primary.

Now it may be true that vesting all counterterrorism and domestic-preparedness powers in the DHS would be unwise, as doing so could make the agency too unwieldy and even Orwellian. And it may also be impractical to craft legislation that would perfectly protect against ideas like FutureMAP being implemented. But it remains deeply problematic that the administration left the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the CIA untouched. As a consequence, the DHS has no legal power to monitor much of the spending for domestic preparedness, and people are free to launch far-fetched, multimillion-dollar schemes like Poindexter's. Without that authority, the DHS has bowed to the agendas of distinct, rival and often warring agencies. And, of course, by virtue of its limited jurisdiction, the DHS has no real power to do anything about what Congress identified as perhaps the most glaring hole in our counterterrorism effort: the absence of an effective system for intelligence sharing.

Surely the administration can do better. In other areas, it has used executive orders to achieve central oversight. Indeed, when it comes to environmental or health and safety regulations of numerous departments, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services, the White House has seized direct coordination of policy making. Yet there seems to be no similar attention from Pennsylvania Avenue when it comes to the anti-terrorism efforts of the Pentagon, CIA and Justice Department. In fact, those agencies responsible for fighting the war on terrorism are in some ways the ones freest from direct control by the commander in chief.

But the problem isn't only that the administration failed to give the DHS sufficient power. The DHS has failed to use even the limited power that it does have to identify clear homeland-defense priorities. The department set out its agenda in its National Strategy for Homeland Security only a month after the most massive restructuring of government in more than 50 years. Not surprisingly, the strategy was a catalog of conventional wisdom, suggesting such evident steps as "Secure Our Borders" and "Protect Cyberspace." Indeed, when asked before its release what the nation could expect, Ridge replied that the strategy would contain "no surprises." He was right. The 90-page report detailing 80 agenda items is all things to all people.

Worse, about a year since he took office, Ridge seems no closer to crafting clear, specific guidance. During that time, there has been an outpouring of suggestions from think tanks and universities on how to prioritize domestic-preparedness programs. But Ridge is still talking in generalities. As he speaks to governors, first responders, chambers of commerce, police and fire officials, citizen groups, think tanks and public-health managers about beefing up their systems, there is little sense of the critical priorities that must be satisfied, let alone how and with what money. It cannot be, however, that supporting a citizen corps is as equally compelling, or necessary, as enhancing money and equipment for first responders. A reader of DHS statements would be justified in concluding that the current strategy is "try anything and everything."

It is important for the Democrats to craft an alternative vision that sets clear priorities. That doesn't mean simply criticizing the total spending the administration is, or is not, committing to the war on terrorism, nor does it mean merely providing a laundry list of hoped-for programs. The more Democrats focus on analyzing weaknesses and setting priorities, the more the holes in our current homeland-security strategy will become apparent.

There are some key places to begin. For example, throughout the country, first responders, who are critical actors in securing the American homeland, need increased federal funding and guidance from a central authority. Shockingly, even two years after the September 11 attacks, New York firefighters still cannot communicate with police, nor can they communicate with their counterparts from New Jersey or Westchester County. This lack of compatibility among first responders, noted in April in a New York Times editorial, remains a problem in much of the nation. The DHS should have assisted in overcoming just such jurisdictional and geographic boundaries. Outlying and out-of-state hospitals, emergency crews and shelters must be part of any metropolitan area's terrorism-response plan. Legal and practical barriers, such as the ability of public-health workers in one state to provide medication in areas where they are not certified, also need to be resolved. And it must be the DHS that provides such best practices, model regulations and hands-on guidance.

Furthermore, the DHS has, to date, done little to integrate the private sector in domestic-preparedness planning. As any lawyer in the Washington area will tell you, while federal government employees were being evacuated on 9-11, the law firms surrounding much of downtown D.C. received no similar guidance. During the subsequent anthrax attacks, the administration remained silent on what private institutions -- many of them with their own mail and delivery services -- should be doing. While the DHS has provided its much-maligned list of must-haves for those at home, including the notorious duct tape, the truth is that the institutions -- some as large as mini-cities -- where most working people spend a good portion of the day have received virtually no guidance on terrorism preparedness.

Finally, the DHS' most notable attempt to guide the country in terrorism response was with its color-coded threat scheme, where colors change as the perceived risk of terrorism increases or decreases. But that scheme is now understood to be unworkable, forcing jurisdictions to respond to vague threats, pay police overtime and wait it out. So the DHS has revamped it to make it harder for the threat level to change. But that doesn't help with the big question: What should jurisdictions do in response to fluctuating terrorism threats?

These challenges present a tall order. But there is one even taller. As much as a domestic-preparedness strategy must focus on protecting soft targets and citizens, and as much as it must focus on enlisting the public-health community and the private sector in its efforts, it must also recognize that the very act of preparing the nation for terrorism must not threaten the freedoms of our society. Domestic preparedness is as much about feeling that our government knows what it is doing to keep us safe as about actually being safe.

In its cold calculation that you could bet on assassination, destruction and death, the Defense Department utterly missed the point that such a scheme does little to ease public concerns that the government has a thoughtful and benign policy toward our security. The outrage that followed the FutureMAP story in some sense reflected just this concern: Are people like Poindexter and Ashcroft fixated on security over any other consideration? Obviously we should not just trust in the good judgment of specific policy-makers to be attentive to these concerns. We need institutional structures of congressional oversight and objective internal review in place to ensure that they become a key part of the kind of evaluation of any domestic preparedness strategy.

As currently configured, however, the DHS is poorly suited to the task of ensuring that a homeland-security strategy, whatever it might be, properly assesses the competing interests of security and liberty. That's not an accident. The administration fought proposals to establish an Office of Civil Rights and Liberties within the DHS, one that would monitor the department's compliance with constitutional norms as it conducted the war on terrorism. Such offices exist in other agencies, such as the Department of Education, where an independent review of government actions is deemed necessary. And certainly there are few agencies as likely to have as significant an impact on civil rights and liberties as the DHS. After all, the department may have a good justification for violating Americans' civil rights: It's just trying to prevent the worst from happening. All the more reason for an internal oversight body.

In addition to offices within the DHS focused on the personal rights of the citizenry, it is also critical that a department charged with as massive a mission as the DHS be relatively transparent to the public and generally open to self-criticism. To that end, the legislation establishing the DHS created an Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to "prevent and detect fraud, abuse, mismanagement, and waste" in DHS programs. Hereto, however, due to Republican congressional efforts, the OIG has less power than it needs. Democratic proposals to create a more aggressive office were rejected during the debates leading up to the creation of the DHS, and the law now permits the DHS secretary to prohibit the OIG from continuing any investigation that might disclose sensitive national-security information.

To be fair, other agencies also have similar national-security exceptions written into their OIG statutes. The difference is that in the war on terrorism that has followed 9-11, a war that has tremendous impact on the domestic home front, those exceptions are more easily invoked. It is for this reason that the oft-criticized USA PATRIOT Act was drawn to remedy part of that loophole at the Department of Justice. Democrats successfully required the Justice Department's OIG to provide a report every six months related to claims of civil-rights and civil-liberties violations allegedly committed by Justice Department employees. It was this authority that gave Glenn Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, enough foundation to release his compelling report regarding department misuse of detainee handling after September 11.

The Fine investigation was important not simply because Ashcroft was blindsided by an internal watchdog finding. The most important aspect was that the Justice Department itself adopted virtually every recommendation that the inspector general made. Without such an office in place for the Department of Homeland Security, there will be no such oversight, and no such needed revisions of protocol.

There is one more lesson in the FutureMAP story, and it is one that the Democrats would do well to take to heart. In an effort as massive as the current war on terrorism, there are sure to be missteps by any administration, and these are sure to make for easy targets in political debates. But a Democratic strategy that depends on such missteps to set its own homeland-security agenda is a mistaken one. Democrats must seize upon the big picture. They did this when they proposed the idea of a Department of Homeland Security. Now they need to go further: They need to offer a comprehensive plan for true coordination of counterterrorism policy, to emphasize the need for centralized setting of priorities to address holes in our frontline domestic defenses, and to focus on the paramount importance of making the homeland secure in a way that honors a free society.