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A Department Under Fire

​THE DEPARTMENT of Homeland Security (DHS) has come under constant criticism in recent years. The department has been on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) High Risk Program list from its early days due to its size. The list highlights major programs that are at high risk for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.

The harshest criticism has been directed to DHS’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which was called an inflexible bureaucracy that tended to be reactive by a report from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. In November, Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee, said that the flying public was not well served by the TSA’s focus on “little old ladies and others who pose no security risk.”

To put some of the criticism leveled at DHS generally, and TSA in particular, in perspective, Steve Lord, who covers TSA issues for the GAO, points to the incredible volume of people who interact with TSA daily at security checkpoints. “All it takes is a few mishaps to earn a notable entry on YouTube in today’s viral environment,” he notes. K. Jack Riley, vice president of the National Security Research Division at the RAND Corp., says that improving the TSA checkpoint experience could go a long way to improving the agency’s image with citizens. “TSA is the face of DHS,” he observes. Riley recommends that TSA make security checkpoint videos available for analysis by an independent third-party that can make customer service recommendations and highlight inefficient practices. This could also improve the attitudes of transportation security officers (TSOs), who suffer the worst morale of any employee inside DHS, which has the worst employee morale of any federal agency, on average.

Those minor adjustments won’t address the range of serious concerns about how resources are used, however. For example, a joint report from two House committees called into question TSA and DHS acquisition methods after it was discovered that an estimated $184 million worth of TSA screening equipment sat unused in a warehouse in Texas. In one instance, TSA purchased more explosives trace detectors than it needed in return for a discount. TSA assumed demand for the technology would increase. It was wrong.

Then there is the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program, which was supposed to secure sensitive areas at port facilities by requiring that workers purchase biometric ID cards and have them verified by card readers purchased by port facility and vessel operators. Readers for the cards haven’t been deployed because of technological difficulties, and it’s unclear when they might be deployed. The U.S. Coast Guard told Congress this summer that a notice of proposed rulemaking for TWIC readers would be issued before the end of 2012. A final rule should have been published in April 2009, almost four years ago, according to the SAFE Port Act of 2006.

For now, workers are stuck paying about $130 for biometric cards that aren’t much more than “expensive flash passes,” according to Rep. Bennie Thompson (DMS), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. “I cannot think of too many programs in government that have had more delays, more costs to the taxpayers, and more incidents of failing to perform,” said Rep. John Mica (R-FL), the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Another issue is profiling. In August, more than 30 TSOs went to The New York Times alleging that agency employees had engaged in persistent racial profiling as part of the TSA Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program. It was the third time in one year that such allegations had been made at different airports. In response, Thompson wrote a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole calling for a comprehensive review of the program. TSA responded by retraining some employees and warning all employees that racial profiling would not be tolerated.

Part of the problem may be a lack of accountability, say David C. Maurer, director of homeland security and justice for the GAO and Matt Mayer, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former DHS official. Both say they could not remember a time when either DHS program managers or failing contractors were fired. “It just doesn’t happen,” Mayer says. DHS Spokesman Matthew Chandler disagrees with that assessment, however. “Executive and managerial performance is consistently evaluated to ensure [that] employees are meeting the goals and requirements of their jobs,” he says.

One barrier to improving management of DHS, says Maurer, is a slowly dying mind-set that he likens to a post-9-11 cultural phenomenon. “It’s like the TV show, 24, Jack Bauer and all that running around,” he says. “There is a little bit too much of that culture at DHS that still persists.”

DHS top managers who subscribe to that way of thinking find things like acquisition review boards, receiving clean financial audits, and assessing human capital distracting to the mission of protecting the country, Maurer says. “Sometimes that’s okay, but if you have too much of that, then you end up with systems that don’t work, and you end up wasting millions of dollars,” he notes.

There have been signs of improvement. On the management side, Maurer says, there is now more attention and focus on getting the fundamentals right. For example, more emphasis is now placed on technology testing, better bookkeeping, and assessing human capital needs.

Moreover, he says, upper DHS management recognizes the problems. In particular, Maurer gives kudos to Raphael Boras, DHS’s undersecretary for management, for beginning to seriously reform the way DHS does business.

But Maurer cautions that it will take some time to get DHS working better and more efficiently. “They’re turning the aircraft carrier around,” he says. “It takes a long time to do it.”

Some members of Congress may not be as tolerant of the department’s slow pace of reform as multiple examples of waste, fraud, and abuse have already taken a toll on the department’s reputation on Capitol Hill.

After a Senate subcommittee released a scathing report on federal support for fusion centers in October, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) used it to argue against expanding DHS’s responsibilities. “This report should make clear why I and many of my colleagues are unwilling to entrust the [DHS] with the vital task of protecting our nation’s cybersecurity.”