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The Homeland Security Bureaucracy

  • Eli Lehrer
  • Jun 1, 2004
  • : National Policy, National Security

When a nation seeking to protect itself finds diplomacy, war, and foreign intelligence gathering insufficient, it can undertake three other types of activities to defend itself. It can control the movement of potential terrorists entering the country or traveling within it; it can capture or neutralize terrorist plotters within its borders; and when all else fails, it can mitigate damage from terrorist attacks. These three activities—access control, law enforcement, and disaster mitigation—comprise the essentials of homeland security. Congress and the Bush administration have consolidated many federal efforts to accomplish these three tasks in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In so doing they hope to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks.

Certainly, much good work has been accomplished. But thus far, not enough thought has been given to the considerable structural impediments to serious reform. DHS’s vast reach coupled with its lack of bodies on the ground, the checkered history of American bureaucratic reform, and the difficulty DHS’s constituent agencies have encountered defining new missions all suggest that homeland security is at best a work in progress. DHS’s various bureaus are still too limited in scope, too committed to their legacy missions, and too unlikely to change for the existence of a Department of Homeland Security to modify the way America confronts terrorists.

The directorates

DHS carries out an enormous number of duties. At the highest level of its organizational chart, DHS consists of four collections of related programs called directorates: Border and Transportation Security (BTS); Emergency Preparedness and Response (EPR); Science and Technology (S&T); Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection (IAIP); and Management. The Coast Guard, U.S. Citizenship Service and Immigration Service (which issues visas and grants citizenship), the Secret Service, and the new Office of State and Local Coordination (which administers grants) all report directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security. Outside of the Management Directorate, which handles payroll, computer systems, and human resources, DHS’s major programs were all transferred from other agencies. 

 All of the directorates carry out varied missions. The Border and Transportation Security Directorate has the biggest budget and the highest public profile. It includes the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and two border agencies created from pieces of the Border Guard, Customs Service, Agricultural Inspection Service, and Immigration and Naturalization Service. The first, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), enforces immigration law within the borders of the United States by catching people in the country illegally. Customs and Border Protection is the second; it secures the borders. More than half of all DHS employees work for the Border and Transportation Security Directorate, and over 70 percent of these work as baggage screeners. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which dominates the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate, serves four functions. It funds rebuilding after disasters, offers expert advice on preparing for disasters before they happen, gives operating and capital assistance to local emergency response agencies, and runs some secret facilities designed to help the federal government survive a catastrophic attack. Emergency Preparedness and Response also administers a vaccine stockpile program transferred from the Department of Health and Human Services and programs intended to mitigate nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks formerly belonging to the FBI and Department of Energy.

The Science and Technology Directorate is DHS’s smallest: It runs four major labs that mostly concern themselves with developing countermeasures for weapons of mass destruction. It also funds university research.

 The Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate, on the other hand, attempts to improve our handle on information about terrorist threats, drawing together six separate programs from agencies ranging from the FBI to the Department of Energy. It runs the much-derided color-coded warning system, and produces the daily Homeland Security briefing for the president. It creates the briefing by analyzing information from the nominally independent Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) created by the president in January 2003. This center—theoretically a joint venture between the FBI, CIA, and DHS—has a staff drawn largely from the CIA and is housed at CIA headquarters. DHS’s top officials are not always privy to the sources and methods the center uses to develop the reports they receive from it. With a few minor exceptions, mostly related to the Internet, the directorate’s programs do not attempt to gather information itself.


Federal homeland security activities cover only a small part of the law enforcement and disaster mitigation continuum. Even access control functions, which the federal government dominates in some areas, have a more federalist tinge than many assume. DHS’s scope, in other words, provides evidence against those who believe it will make a major difference in the way America carries out homeland security tasks. The lack of national reach is distressing because homeland security is a quintessentially national task. Terrorist attacks can happen almost anywhere, will likely hit nationally prominent targets, and will almost certainly overwhelm the resources of local governments.

A majority of people involved in the law enforcement functions associated with homeland security do not work for DHS. Many terrorist plots will arise in America’s neighborhoods, and DHS could never simultaneously monitor all possible sources of terrorist attack.

Fewer than 15 percent of all law-enforcement personnel in the United States work for the federal government, and less than half of these work for DHS. The United States has 17,000 police agencies—more than all other developed countries put together. None of these agencies has a legal obligation to take tactical guidance—much less strategic cues—from the federal government. DHS, in any case, stations nearly all of its employees in Washington, at major airports and along the borders. It has no presence in over three quarters of America’s counties. Even within the federal government, many agencies involved in what everyone agrees are homeland security functions remain outside DHS. In addition to the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, the FBI, which leads intelligence gathering, the Drug Enforcement Administration, which tracks a key source of terrorist financing, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, which would play a major role in contingencies involving bombs or chemical weapons, remain outside DHS. These agencies, furthermore, have missions that mention fighting terrorism as only one task among many and, even if placing them within DHS had a major effect on their duties, it might also damage their ability to carry out other tasks. If the federal government plays a major role in trying to arrest terrorists, DHS will probably not lead those efforts.

Disaster mitigation, likewise, falls largely outside of DHS’s scope of responsibility. While employees of the Emergency and Preparedness Response Directorate (mostly from FEMA) do show up at the scene of most major disasters and provide grants for rebuilding and mitigating, they have few “troops” on the ground. FEMA itself has only 2,600 employees—fewer than the Illinois State Police—and only about 2,000 of them can show up at even the largest disasters. Most of the responsibilities for actually taking care of people after disasters and terrorist attacks fall on state and local disaster management bureaucracies that, collectively, employ at least 10 times FEMA’s personnel. New York, California, and Texas combined have more people in disaster mitigation agencies than FEMA. The agency does a superb job mitigating damage from natural disasters, but seems to have little interest in terrorism.

The federal government dominates access control tasks around the country. At borders and airports, federal agents remain in full control. Other facilities, ranging from office buildings to rocket launch pads, remain in the hands of a dizzying array of private contractors, federal bureaus, and local agencies. DHS, however, administers most of the contracts for these private security firms through the Federal Protective Service. It does not do anything to secure many prominent facilities—ranging from the Sears Tower to New York’s City Hall—that have no federal offices.

It’s clear that DHS’s scope is far smaller than the entire task of homeland security. Given that DHS does not have direct control over much of what it is supposed to do, it comes as no surprise that a number of tasks DHS promised to perform remain undone. A national assessment of critical infrastructure—a disaster mitigation task—may take as long as five years. It was promised in one year. A repeated promise to create a single unified terrorist watch list, likewise, may never come to fruition. DHS has decided to build a complex terrorist tracking computer system instead. Access control tasks, which DHS does have far more complete control over, do appear to have proceeded more smoothly: TSA, for example, has met goals to screen every airline passenger and perform X-rays or CT scans of checked luggage, and Customs and Border Protection will eventually begin tracking foreigners visiting the United States, albeit several years behind schedule.

Some of these failings may stem from the growing pains implicit in starting a new federal agency. But their roots are likely deeper than that: DHS simply does not have the breadth of control necessary to mandate that state and local emergency managers or even other federal police agencies do what it says.

Missions, old and new

Nearly all of DHS’s programs have long-standing missions that bear only a tangential relationship to fighting terrorism. Labs tasked with developing biological weapons countermeasures, for example, grew out of the Department of Agriculture and have animal and plant disease experts on staff. Customs and Border Protection draws together agriculture inspectors, border patrol officers, and members of drug enforcement details. One can see this pattern repeat itself in several of DHS’s most high-profile agencies: FEMA, the Secret Service, the Federal Protective Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, Coast Guard, Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Office of State and Local Coordination, and the Transportation Security Administration.

Together, these bureaus and programs spend about 80 percent of DHS’s total budget and employ roughly the same percentage of its workforce. Yet homeland security remains for many of them a second-level priority.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which had a clear mandate before DHS’s creation, now faces a multiplicity of conflicting ones. Long an unimportant agency full of campaign contributors, FEMA underwent a massive reorganization under Clinton-era administrator James Lee Witt. It emphasized providing timely mitigation assistance first and payments to every individual and government that qualified for them second. Witt thought the agency should concentrate on natural disasters. “During the 1990s,” Witt told the Congressional Research Service’s (CRS) Keith Bea, “FEMA has responded to over 500 emergency and major disaster related events, only two of those were related to terrorism: [the first World Trade Center bombing] and Oklahoma City.” As a result of this new focus, cities could be rebuilt more quickly after natural disasters, and FEMA employees, who often managed to arrive at natural disaster sites before trouble started, took on a quasi-heroic stature helping localities organize evacuations and providing expert advice on post-disaster reconstruction.

Under DHS, however, FEMA now emphasizes “prepar[ing] to manage the consequences of terrorist attacks, especially those involving the use of weapons of mass destruction.” Bea has studied the agency carefully, and raises a number of doubts about the desirability of having it join DHS. In a July 2002 CRS report, he observes that most of FEMA’s programs in “emergency food and shelter, flood insurance, natural hazard mitigation, and the maintenance of data on fires, have little application to homeland security.” Despite emphasizing terrorism on its web site and in executive speeches, FEMA’s actual activities remain heavily invested in natural disaster mitigation and relief to the exclusion of terrorism. Although a few of its programs have new names, its largest new post-September 11 initiative (funded at $150 million in 2003 and $200 million in 2004) has been to digitize the nation’s floodplain maps—a task that has almost no relationship to fighting terrorism. Only one new program, emergency management planning grants that FEMA passes directly to states with little oversight, even addresses terrorism. FEMA, in other words, has a well-defined role to play. But it does not relate to terrorism.

Despite a variety of different proposed missions, the Coast Guard has always seen itself as a small-boat navy.  Its naval mystique aside, it was housed in the Treasury Department at its creation in 1915, moved into the Department of Transportation when Lyndon Johnson created it, and now resides in the Department of Homeland Security. (It transfers to the Defense Department during wartime.) The Coast Guard’s official history emphasizes its role engaging German U-Boats, pirates, and Viet Cong in places the Navy couldn’t go. Historically, it has resisted change. The Nixon and Reagan administrations tried to use the Coast Guard for intercepting illegal drugs, but the effort flopped and has become a low priority. Efforts to turn the Guard into a boating safety and environmental protection agency under Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton had similar results. Although the agency issues two or three press releases every day, it has not mentioned a specific action against a polluter since at least 2002.

The periodic change of mission has come largely because many policy makers view the need for a small boat navy with skepticism. Despite heavy spending on military hardware, the Coast Guard has not gotten into a serious firefight since Vietnam. Under DHS, however, the Coast Guard has continued to emphasize small-time naval combat to the exclusion of other tasks. Since September 11, its budget has grown by $1 billion, or slightly more than 20 percent. Over 90 percent of the increases have gone to upgrade weapons systems and boats under the new “deepwater” program and to deploy new “Marine Safety and Security Teams”—essentially Coast Guard special forces units—to respond to terrorists.

These moves may make military sense and help fight terrorism, but they move the Coast Guard in the direction of becoming a full-fledged fifth armed service rather than a national maritime police force. On the other hand, the Coast Guard has done more to inspect ships approaching U.S. ports and searching them for weapons and terrorists. It’s probably too early to tell how quickly the Coast Guard will move to change its organizational focus. For the moment, its operations appear to reflect a commitment to a new task while its capital spending appears to continue its legacy as an aspiring fifth military branch.

New priorities?

The Secret Service also remains committed to its legacy missions—dignitary protection and counterfeiting investigation. Its new homeland security goal, first announced in 1998, is coordinating security around “National Special Security Events” such as the Olympics, but this effort appears almost stillborn. While its most recent strategic plan begins with a good deal of boilerplate about the importance of homeland security and does make an effort to attach its executive protection functions to fighting terrorism, it does not define any strategic goals related to National Security Special Events. It continues zealously to protect top officials, but the majority of Secret Service investigators still work on counterfeiting. Only a small portion of its investigative capabilities directly confronts terrorist organizations.

Local police forces, likewise, rarely accept total Secret Service authority in coordinating security around designated events. This isn’t altogether surprising: The Secret Service, a reasonably small agency, has neither the reach nor the expertise to serve as an all-purpose terrorism police force as it was envisioned in 1998.

Although the Federal Protective Service (FPS) employs more uniformed officers than any other federal law enforcement agency except TSA, most Americans have never heard of it. The agency provides the armed security guards—almost all of them contractors—at federal buildings. Its main task has always been responding when an alarm sounds. In all, it employs nearly 10,000 security and police personnel. It does not have a good reputation. The Justice Department, for example, kicked out FPS guards from its Washington headquarters in the mid 1980s and now administers its own security contracts. FPS remains heavily invested in responding to alarm calls just as it was before. But as the department’s founders envisioned, it does so in a broader context. It seeks to make sure that other agencies can use its MegaCenters for monitoring alarms in buildings and that the force does not respond on its own. This task represents the sort of interoperability DHS’s creators envisioned. Its new posture makes it easier to call in police forces with better investigative personnel and methods when something goes wrong. This is only a small step, but the Federal Protective Service appears to have begun undertaking tasks useful to a larger department.

The new United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which assumes many of the functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, remains difficult to deal with and unresponsive to requests for customer service, even by the standards of a government agency. Perhaps this is because the agency serves immigrants who do not vote or organize politically. From the standpoint of homeland security, it appears to have made some limited progress: The travel documents issued to resident aliens returning home for a visit, which many analysts believed were a crucial weakness in America’s border control system, are much harder to forge than they were before September 11. A system called the Student and Visitor Information System, or SEVIS, now tracks foreign students who come to the United States and alerts federal officials if an individual in the country on a student visa fails to attend classes.

More serious issues related to immigration and customs, however, remain unresolved. An ambitious project called U.S.-VISIT (which also involves Customs and Border Protection) would collect photographs and digital fingerprints from every foreigner who enters the United States, but it has moved slowly. While DHS met a vaguely worded congressional deadline to collect information about visitors, the full-fledged U.S.-VISIT computer system won’t roll out nationally until at least 2006.

Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the external and internal immigration control agencies, seemed to be the easiest victory for those reorganizing the DHS bureaucracy. Former Clinton advisor John Podesta and former Reagan administration official Ken Duberstein were in agreement on this when they announced that agency consolidations would help “focus the American people and the government on the mission at hand, get agencies to reorder priorities and streamline operations.” The integration has not gone smoothly. Uniforms and logos from agencies that haven’t existed for almost two years still predominate at airports, and reports indicate that the new agency suffers from low morale. A computer system taken mostly from the Immigration and Naturalization Service has caused significant problems. Internal bureaucratic squabbles are rife in both agencies. Fights have erupted over matters as trivial as the types of weapons agents should carry. The New Republic contends that the worst problems of the INS’s notoriously unresponsive bureaucracy have infected the other agencies. Given that CPB and ICE face a dual task of integrating their component parts into new bureaus and fitting those bureaus into a new department, it is probably too early to judge the efforts’ success or failure.

One major DHS component does not have a legacy mission: The Transportation Security Administration. Unlike every other major component of the Department of Homeland Security, TSA was created from scratch after September 11. It has a budget of nearly $5 billion and employs more people than the Coast Guard and FBI combined.  Despite some gripes from libertarians, a few internal slip-ups, and more than a little ribbing from late-night comedians, its internal polling (conducted under contract with the consulting firm BearingPoint) has shown that the flying public likes the agency and, according to a series of Gallup Polls between 2001 and 2003, feels that airline security has improved since September 11. And terrorists have not succeeded in hijacking any airplanes. Air travel, after a sharp post-September 11 downturn, recovered nicely in 2002 and 2003, hitting an all-time high in December 2003. Judged as an economic signaling mechanism, too, the Transportation Security Administration appears to have accomplished much. Studies from BearingPoint, DHS’s own inspector general, and the U.S. General Accounting Office, however, showed that TSA’s actual security performance is lackluster.

Moreover, it is difficult to ascertain if the agency has prevented any attacks on airports or airlines. And when it comes to defining its mandate, the agency does not seem to have done much: Should it emphasize getting people through inspection as quickly as possible? Providing maximum security? How much attention should it devote to non-airline security missions such as securing Amtrak trains, seaports, and inter-city trucking? So far, these questions remain unanswered. The agency has a better chance of developing a mandate than nearly any other within DHS, but thus far the work of simply setting up a functioning baggage-inspection agency and developing appropriate tactics have prevented it from asking larger strategic questions.


Since DHS itself lacks the scope to carry out its many disaster mitigation and law enforcement tasks, grant programs are a crucial component in establishing a national strategy. Although state and local grant programs employ reasonably few people and run mostly through DHS’s Office of State and Local Coordination, they make up roughly 10 percent of the DHS budget. The office, created in early 2004, consolidates the overwhelming majority of DHS grants. Despite protests of underfunding from the Conference of Mayors and virtually every police chief, however, the Bush administration has not starved state and local law enforcement agencies for resources. Over the administration’s three years in office, funding for first responders has grown 29 percent a year on average, which is almost exactly the same rate that overall homeland security spending has grown. This is faster than the 19 percent annual rate at which this assistance to state and local governments grew under the Clinton administration.

Despite the overall spending increase, the Bush administration has angered police agencies by cutting nearly all Clinton-era grant programs. It has made them even angrier by proposing cutting overall assistance for 2005 back to 2002 levels. The Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office closely associated with Clinton’s “100,000 new police officers” pledge, sustained the deepest cuts. It now does little besides publish pamphlets and fund police officers in schools. Two other grants, the population-based Local Law Enforcement Block Grants and crime-rate based Byrne Grants, have also sustained cuts.

Nearly all new federal dollars flow through DHS block grants. This approach does not help coordination between agencies or help to develop a national strategy. COPS grants, unlike the new DHS grants, were awarded on a competitive basis and could, at least in theory, serve as the basis for a national strategy. DHS grants, on the other hand, rarely have strings attached. So far, as a result, block grant programs have encouraged heavy spending on equipment coupled with modest spending on planning, coordination, and intelligence. Many grant proposals read like Christmas lists from information technology directors, and the federal-state establishment in turn plays Santa Claus.

By the end of 2004, for example, nearly every major city in the country will have used federal money to buy chemical-weapons protection gear for its entire patrol force. Due to significant reductions in funding for personnel and other daily operations, they have come under increasing pressure from police agencies to use these funds to replace money that once flowed from the COPS office and other federal grant programs. Several states, including Massachusetts and California, indeed, have had to deal with accusations that local police agencies diverted homeland security funds to ordinary law enforcement tasks. The 2004 and 2005 grants from DHS, however, are more specific and less oriented towards equipment purchases than those that came before them. Many states are also becoming more stringent in the way they award grants. The consolidation of most grant programs in a single office (which DHS will complete sometime in 2005) will also make it easier for an administration so inclined to articulate a national strategy. So far, however, a massive increase in grant spending appears to have done little to establish a national homeland security strategy, although grants have armed local agencies with a wide variety of new equipment.

Critical tasks

As its long list of incomplete tasks and unmet objectives indicates, DHS is unlikely to change the way American government does business. In a comprehensive survey of managerial innovations and reorganizations in government, Louis Winnick, writing in City Journal, found that “genuinely radical transformations in government cannot occur without radical transformations in policy, in the fundamental ‘what’ of government as distinguished from the procedural ‘how.’” Hoover commissions under Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter’s zero-based budgeting, Ronald Reagan’s Grace Commission, Al Gore’s Reinventing Government initiative, and the President’s Management Agenda (proffered by George W. Bush) all examined the structure of federal bureaucracy and produced reams of reports. New agencies built from existing programs—the Education, Transportation and Energy departments stand out—have not transformed the federal government. None has produced large management savings, vastly improved public services, or given bureaucrats a new sense of mission.

Truly remaking a government agency’s mission appears to require what James Q. Wilson calls a “critical task”: a group of “behaviors, which, if successfully performed by key organizational members, would enable the organization to manage its critical environmental problem.” Wilson, writing in his book Bureaucracy, finds that successful agencies develop a high degree of public support for the selected critical task, energize their employees in carrying it out, and receive a degree of independence necessary to discard duties peripheral to this critical task. Most programs define a critical task when Congress creates them or during a period of drastic growth. Government agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, and Apollo-era NASA are the ones that academics cite as models of excellence in service and accomplishment, and these have devoted themselves to single critical tasks, sometimes to the exclusion of other tasks. The Social Security Administration, for example, has a clear critical task of sending a benefit check to every American over 65. The Department of Homeland Security, in contrast, has only the large and amorphous goal of “protect[ing] the nation against further terrorist attacks.”

Asking an entire cabinet level agency to find a critical task, however, probably isn’t possible. As Wilson observes, any major cabinet-level department carries out a mission too diverse to fall into a single critical task. Thus, he finds, critical tasks usually come into existence at the bureau level rather than on an agency-wide level. Looking at DHS’s bureaus, however, one can find little evidence that new critical tasks have emerged. 

Growing pains

Faced with the specter of international terrorism, the Bush administration had little choice but to create a bureaucracy to confront it. This bureaucracy has had some successes: U.S.-VISIT will make borders more secure, baggage gets inspected more stringently, and, despite a lack of progress so far, the creation of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement at least raises the possibility that an effective system may one day exist to secure America’s borders and track down criminals and terrorists from foreign countries. Behind the scenes, some more glimmers of hope emerge. The Management Directorate has integrated roughly half of the department’s management computer systems, a task that will deliver savings and greater organizational coherence down the road.

The vast scope of DHS’s responsibilities and its failure to develop critical tasks for most of its components indicate that the new department has yet to develop a coherent national strategy. Through good management, many of its components may become more agile and effective. Still, DHS does not include some functions it probably should, such as the FBI’s counter-terrorism programs. And it includes some, most prominently FEMA, that would probably do better outside of the department. Despite sending local governments vast sums of money, it has yet to articulate a strategy for dealing with many of the disaster mitigation and law enforcement tasks the federal government could never handle on its own.

Of course, providing this level of strategic guidance is a delicate balancing act. While the federal government needs to provide advice and assistance to local agencies, any effort to specify tactics and strategies for non-terrorism-related matters could damage a local policing system that is arguably the best in the world.

Many of DHS’s early growing pains were probably unavoidable. Nobody expected 22 diffuse agencies to merge seamlessly just because Congress and the president wanted them to. So far, however, it seems the department still has much to do in its quest to make America safer.

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