The Department of Homeland Security needs to free itself from political meddling and radically overhaul its infrastructure, or it will succumb to growing calls for its abolition, warns a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
In a withering analysis of the third largest federal agency, the Center for a New American Security said the DHS has both “underachieved” and “outgrown” its original mission to protect the nation from terrorist attacks.
“DHS’s border and immigration functions are under tremendous strain as they are tasked with increased policy directives, humanitarian challenges on the southern border, intense political pressure, and growing public scrutiny about these functions,” the analysts said.
“The department is in severe need of legislative attention and policy coordination, [and] if it does not reform to address the issues identified in this report, it is likely the department will face calls for partial or full dismantlement under a future administration.”
The report by the Center, whose leadership includes former officials and senior bureaucrats in Republican and Democratic administrations, said abolition was not an option.
It “would undo nearly 20 years of effort to better protect the nation from terrorism and emerging homeland threats, and risk returning to a pre-9/11 era of disjointed homeland security coordination,” wrote Carrie Cordero, the lead author of the report.
Nevertheless, the report painted a grim portrait of a department plagued by instability at the top, agent misconduct and low morale—and deeply compromised by political meddling.
“The high volume of political appointees in the department—particularly at headquarters—has had the effect of preventing a substantial professional service corps to mature, while also providing lack of continuity at senior levels,” said the report, noting that the agency had five different chiefs in the first three years of President Donald Trump’s administration, and that at least 16 key senior posts were still filled by “acting” personnel.
The revolving door of senior personnel is one reason why morale in the department is so low that the DHS now ranks last among large agencies in annual surveys of federal government “best places to work,” the analysts wrote.
While DHS has been the target of criticism almost since it was established, the analysis argued that it had sunk to a dangerous level of politicization—or “political malleability” —since Trump came into office.
The report left little doubt that it believed the department’s long-standing weaknesses had been exploited by the White House to further its anti-immigration political agenda.
“While it is certainly legitimate for a new administration to change policy direction, the administration has found a soft spot in DHS,” the analysts wrote.
“By doing away with many inter-agency processes that have existed as norms in prior administrations but are not required by law, White House staff have been able to advance policies that do not sufficiently take into account legal requirements and constraints.”
The report’s measured language only underlined the seriousness of its indictment.
“As the law enforcement functions of DHS have grown, particular in border policing, the department’s political malleability can have the appearance of tainting law enforcement as being politically motivated,” the analysts wrote.
The report continued:
DHS’s political malleability has been on display in the past three years due to this White House’s persistent pressure on its leadership corps…resulting in the department’s willingness to implement policies with what appears to be minimal legal review and implementation planning, and overtly political public messaging from both DHS leadership and official departmental social media accounts.
More specifically, the Trump administration’s unabashed use of the alphabet soup of DHS agencies responsible for safeguarding U.S.borders—such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—to pursue its anti-immigrant agenda “undermines public confidence that law enforcement activities are conducted equally under the law,” the report said.
The perception that a federal agency is evading constitutional norms for partisan purposes is “corrosive to the rule of law in a functioning democracy,” the analysts added.
Defending the ‘Homeland’
The department was created a year after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to strengthen domestic defenses against terrorism. Security experts had long advocated a “homeland” defense strategy that would perform deterrence functions similar to the military and intelligence agencies that are proscribed from operating on U.S. soil.
A federal commission investigating the 2001 attacks noted that the lack of coordination between domestic agencies had created deep security vulnerabilities. For example, warnings by the CIA of a potential domestic attack were not communicated to the FBI, and several of the attackers already under surveillance were allowed to pass undetected into the U.S.
DHS was established to bring existing agencies under one umbrella and develop a seamless coordination among them. But the homeland security structure that emerged in 2002 turned into a federal behemoth, linking at least 10 existing agencies with widely different missions and structures.
Operating under a budget of $20 billion, with 250,000 employees, it now oversees so many functions—ranging from catching undocumented immigrants to disaster relief and combating cyber-sabotage—that some 100 congressional committees can claim to cover it under their oversight responsibilities.
The 60,000 law enforcement officers under DHS purview alone make it the largest federal law enforcement agency.
Yet, 18 years later, it was difficult to pinpoint any specific accomplishments in preventing a terrorist attack, the analysts said.
“The department has underachieved its original, terrorism-specific mission, because the primary responsibility for investigating international and domestic terrorism resides with other government agencies and elements of the intelligence community,” the analysts wrote.
“Worse, it has outgrown its original mission because the nature of the threats to national and homeland security have substantially evolved over time.”
At the same time, the expansion of the homeland security apparatus wasn’t accompanied by a corresponding level of transparency and accountability, leaving it susceptible to serious abuses of civil liberties and constitutional violations, the Center researchers said, citing controversies such as the separation of the children of undocumented immigrants from their parents.
A root-and-branch overhaul of the DHS structure along with a modernization of its mission was the only way to fix the department’s problems, the analysts said
The report said the overhaul should involve three main areas:
- Update the statutes governing DHS activities and mission to reflect the wide variety of threats to homeland security, ranging from cyberterrorism to domestic terrorism, noting that “the mandate of 2002 is simply no longer reflective of the modern threat environment, and it must be updated”;
- Develop a “culture of compliance and oversight” through legislation mandating similar accountability and transparency across each agency under the DHS umbrella. The report cited an Inspector General’s report that despite thousands of allegations of misconduct by DHS employees each year, the DHS has no consistent system for handling misconduct;
- Ensure a consistent structure for Congress to monitor the practices of all the agencies controlled by DHS, and make sure that operational and investigative activities comply with Constitutional requirements, “with special attention to Fourth and First Amendment requirements and principles.”
The report said that the DHS should ordinarily be taking the fundamental steps needed to rebuild public confidence on its own, but “given the instability of leadership in the department in recent years, improvements to the department’s oversight and compliance competencies need to be mandated by congressional action.”
It added: “While legislation alone cannot create and foster a culture of compliance and oversight, it can mandate structural changes that encourage such a culture and put in place specific mechanisms through which Congress can hold the department accountable.”
Whether or not any of the recommendations will be heeded by the current leadership of the DHS or by the administration, the report left a clear signal for the future.
“A department or agency cannot operate effectively domestically without public confidence that its activities are conducted lawfully and appropriately,” the analysts said.
The complete paper can be downloaded here.
Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report