by Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer
February 28, 2013
for TomDispatch Readers
I know Iím starting to
sound like the proverbial broken record, but once again,
many thanks for the surge of recent $100 donations in
return for signed copies of Nick Turseís new book,
Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in
Vietnam. (Itís great
to get this sort of help defraying the unexpected costs
of fixing and strengthening this site for the future,
after its recent crash - when it simply couldnít handle
a rise in traffic and popularity.)
appearance of Nickís book on the New York Times
extended bestseller list has been a genuine surprise,
and no less surprising, itís been a runaway "bestseller"
at TomDispatch as well. In fact, there have been so many
requests for copies that weíve once again run out.
Once upon a time,
"homeland" was a word
of little significance in the American context.
What American before
9/11 would have called the United States his or her "homeland"
rather than "country"? Who sang "My homeland, 'tis of thee, sweet
land of liberty"?
Between my birth in 1944, as World War
II was drawing to a close, and September 11, 2001, I doubt I ever
heard the word in reference to the U.S.
There was a reason:
"homeland" had a
certain ring to it and anyone would have known at once just what
that ring, that resonance, was.
Not to put too fine a point on it, weíre
talking about the ring of evil. It sounded like the sort of word the
Nazis or maybe Stalin would have used as the terrible totalitarians
of the previous century mobilized their people for horrific wars and
Itís true that, in the run-up to
September 11th, somewhere in the corridors of Washington, there were
right-wingers already pushing to homeland-ize this country.
word, along with the idea of creating a future Office of Homeland
Security, was then gestating like the monster baby in the movie
Alien, awaiting its moment
to burst forth.
Today, thereís nothing alien about that
most un-American of terms. It has slipped so smoothly into our lives
that "Homeland" is the name of a popular TV show, and college
students looking for a good livelihood can now get a BA or an MA
coast to coast in... yep, homeland security.
can build a career helping to protect our nation by earning your
Bachelor of Science Degree in Homeland and Corporate Security at St.
And if you happen to be into securing
the homeland, you can even
join the "corporate and homeland security club" on campus. After
college, given the money pouring into the "field," the skyís the
Perhaps Booz Allen will
hire you to consult for firms on - you guessed it - homeland
("Booz Allen is able to serve the Department of Homeland
Security and our other clients because we make their mission our
mission. We therefore understand what is needed to react quickly to
rapidly changing events.")
Or perhaps youíll
be taken on by the Homeland Security Research Corporation in
Washington to provide "premium market, technology, and industry
expertise that enables our global clients to gain critical insight
into the business opportunities that exist within the Homeland
Security & Homeland Defense market.
Government clients include the US, UK,
Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Israel, Canada, Germany, Australia, Sweden,
Finland, and Singapore. US Congress, DHS, US Army, US Navy, DOD,
DOT, GAO, NATO, and the EU are among others.
HSRC serves over
600 private sector clients, including all major defense contractors
and many Fortune 500 companies."
Or what about
Chertoff Group, headed by Michael Chertoff, the former secretary
of the Department of Homeland Security, or the
Ashcroft Group, headed by former Attorney General John Ashcroft,
or for that matter
Good Harbor Security Management, led by former National
Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and
Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke.
And that only scratches the surface. By
2006, only three years after the Department of Homeland Security had
been set up, the New York Times
already reporting that "at least 90 officials" who worked there
or at the White House office that preceded it had zipped through the
revolving door into the private sector and were "executives,
consultants, or lobbyists for companies that collectively do
billions of dollars' worth of domestic security business."
What makes all of this remarkable is how
quietly, how easily, how securely that most alien of words and the
organization that goes with it have entered American life (and
Which is why, thanks to
TomDispatch regulars Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellman from the
National Priorities Project, this website is doing something
rare these days:
putting a spotlight on that modern
cash cow and giant boondoggle lurking in the shadows of our
world, the Department of Homeland Security.
Homeland Security Secretary
(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The Washington Creation That
Ate Your Lunch
Imagine a labyrinthine government department so
bloated that few have any clear idea of just what its countless pieces do.
Imagine that tens of billions of tax dollars are disappearing into it
annually, black hole-style, since it canít pass a congressionally mandated
Now, imagine that there are two such
departments, both gigantic, and youíre beginning to grasp the new,
twenty-first century American security paradigm.
For decades, the Department of Defense has met
this definition to a T.
Since 2003, however, it hasnít been alone.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS),
which celebrates its 10th birthday this March, has grown into a miniature
Pentagon. Itís supposed to be the actual "defense" department - since the
Pentagon is essentially a Department of Offense - and itís rife with all the
same issues and defects that critics of the military-industrial complex have
decried for decades. In other words, "homeland security" has become another
But hereís the strange thing: unlike the
Pentagon, this monstrosity draws no attention whatsoever - even though, by
our calculations, this country has spent a jaw-dropping $791 billion on
"homeland security" since 9/11. To give you a sense of just how big that is,
Washington spent an inflation-adjusted $500 billion on the entire
Despite sucking up a sum of money that could
have rebuilt crumbling infrastructure from coast to coast, this new agency
and the very concept of "homeland security" have largely flown beneath the
media radar - with disastrous results.
And thatís really no surprise, given how the DHS
came into existence.
A few months before 9/11, Congress issued a
acknowledging that U.S. defense policy had not evolved to meet the
challenges of the twenty-first century. The report recommended a "national
homeland security agency" with a single leader to oversee homeland
security-style initiatives across the full range of the federal government.
Although the report warned that a terrorist attack could take place on
American soil, it collected dust.
Then the attack came, and lawmakers of both
political parties and the American public wanted swift, decisive action.
George W. Bush's top officials and advisers saw in 9/11 their
main chance to knock off
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and establish a Pax Americana in the
Greater Middle East. Others, who generally called themselves champions of
small government, saw an opportunity to expand big government at home by
increasing security spending.
Their decision to combine domestic security
under one agency turned out to be like sending the Titanic into the nearest
field of icebergs.
President Bush first created an Office of
Homeland Security in the White House and then, with the
Homeland Security Act of 2002, laid plans for a new executive
department. The DHS was funded with billions of dollars and staffed with
180,000 federal employees when it opened for business on March 1, 2003.
It qualified as the largest reorganization of
the federal government since 1947 when, fittingly, the Department of Defense
Announcing plans for this new branch of
government, President Bush made a little-known declaration of "mission
accomplished" that long preceded that
infamous banner strung up on an aircraft carrier to celebrate his
"victory" in Iraq.
In November 2002,
"The continuing threat of
terrorism, the threat of mass murder on our own soil, will be met with a
unified, effective response."
Mission unaccomplished (big time).
A decade later, a close look at the hodge-podge
of homeland security programs that now spans the U.S. government reveals
that thereís nothing "unified" about it. Not all homeland security programs
are managed through the Department of Homeland Security, nor are all
programs at the Department of Homeland Security related to securing the
created the DHS by pulling together 22 existing government departments,
including stand-alone agencies like,
the Federal Emergency Management
Agency, better known by its acronym
the Coast Guard, which came with
programs both related and unrelated to counterterrorism
They also brought into the DHS a host of
programs that had previously existed as parts of other agencies like the
Nuclear Incident Response Team from the Department of Energy and the
Transportation Security Administration at the Department of
To knit these disparate parts together,
officials built a mammoth bureaucracy over an already existing set of
At the same time, they left a host of
counterterrorism programs scattered across the rest of the federal
government, which means, a decade later, many activities at the DHS are
duplicated by similar programs elsewhere.
A trail of breadcrumbs in federal
budget documents shows how much is spent on homeland security and by
which agencies, though details about what that money is buying are scarce.
The DHS budget was $60 billion last year. However, only $35 billion was
designated for counterterrorism programs of various sorts.
In the meantime, total federal funding for
(small-h, small-s) homeland security was $68 billion - a number that, in
addition to the DHS money, includes $17 billion for the Department of
Defense, plus around $4 billion each for the Departments of Justice and
Health and Human Services, with the last few billion scattered across
virtually every other federal agency in existence.
From the time this new security bureaucracy
rumbled into operation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO),
Washingtonís internal watchdog, called the DHS a "high
risk" proposition. And itís never changed its tune.
Regular GAO reports scrutinize the department
and identify major problems.
In March of last year, for instance, one GAO
noted that the office had recommended a total of 1,600 changes. At that
time, the department had only "addressed about half of them" - and addressed
doesnít necessarily mean solved.
So rest assured, in the best of all possible
homeland security worlds, there are only 800-odd issues outstanding,
according to the governmentís own watchdog, after we as a nation poured $791
billion down the homeland security rabbit hole.
Indeed, there remain gaping problems in the very
areas that the DHS is supposedly securing on our behalf:
Consider port security: you wouldnít
have much trouble overnighting a weapon of mass destruction into the
Cargo terminals are the entry point for
containers from all over the world, and a series of reports have
found myriad vulnerabilities - including
gaps in screening for nuclear and radiological materials.
After spending $200 million on new
screening technology, the DHS determined it wouldnít deliver
sufficient improvements and cancelled the program (but not the cost
to you, the taxpayer).
Then there are the problems of screening
people crossing into this country.
The lionís share of responsibility for
border security lies with part of the DHS, the U.S. Customs and
Border Protection (CBP), which had an $11.7 billion budget in fiscal
But in the land of utter duplication
that is Washingtonís version of counterterrorism, there is also
something called the Border Security Program at the State
Department, with a separate pot of funding to the tune of $2.2
billion last year. The
juryís out on whether these programs are faintly doing their
jobs, even as they themselves define them.
As with so many other DHS programs, the
one thing they are doing successfully is closing and
locking down what was once considered an "open" society.
For around $14 billion each year, the
Department of Homeland Security handles disaster response and
recovery through FEMA, something thatís meant to encompass
preparedness for man-made as well as natural disasters.
But a 2012 investigation by the GAO
found that FEMA employs an outdated method of assessing a
disaster-struck regionís ability to respond and recover without
federal intervention - helpfully, that report came out just a month
it came to light that the DHS had spent $431 million on a radio
system for communication within the department - but only one of
more than 400 employees questioned about the system claimed to have
the slightest idea how to use it.
Itís never surprising to hear that
officials at separate agencies have trouble coordinating, but this
was an indication that, even within the DHS, employees
struggle with the basics of communication.
In a survey that covered all federal
departments, DHS employees reported rock-bottom levels of
engagement with their work. Its own workers called the DHS the
worst federal agency to work for.
Those are just a few of a multitude of
glaring problems inside the now decade-old department. Because
homeland security is not confined to one agency, however, rest
assured that neither is its bungling:
There is, for instance, that $17 billion
in homeland security funding at the Department of Defense - a
mountain of cash for defending against terrorist attacks, protecting
U.S. airspace, and providing security at military bases.
But perhaps defense officials feel that
$17 billion is insufficient, since an October 2012
report by the GAO found the Pentagon had outdated and incomplete
plans for responding to a domestic attack, including confusion about
the chain of command should such an event take place.
That should be no surprise, though: the
Pentagon is so replete with
oversight problems and obsolete, astronomically expensive
programs that it makes the DHS look like a trim, well-oiled machine.
Or consider the domestic
counterterrorism unit at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms,
and Explosives (ATF), which enjoyed $461 million in homeland
security funding last year and is housed not at the DHS or the
Pentagon but at the Department of Justice.
made headlines for giving marked firearms to Mexican smugglers
and losing track of them - and then finding that the weapons were
used in heinous crimes.
More recently, in the wake of the
Newtown massacre, ATF has drawn attention because it fails one of
the most obvious tests of oversight and responsibility: it lacks a
confirmed director at the helm of its operations.
(According to The Hill
newspaper, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) is currently
holding up President Obamaís appointment to head the agency.)
Washington has poured staggering billions into
securing the so-called homeland, but in so many of the areas meant to be
secured there remain glaring holes the size of that gaping wound in the
And yet over the past decade - even with these
problems - terrorist attacks on the homeland have scarcely hurt a soul. That
may offer a clue into just how misplaced the very notion of the Department
of Homeland Security was in the first place.
In the wake of 9/11, pouring tiny percentages of
that DHS money into less flashy safety issues, from,
...to mention just three, might have made
Americans genuinely safer at, by comparison, minimal cost.
Perhaps the strangest part of homeland security
operations may be this: there is
agreed-upon definition for just what homeland security is. The funds
Washington has poured into the concept will soon enough approach a trillion
dollars and yet itís a concept with no clear boundaries that no one can
Worse yet, few are asking the hard questions
about what security we actually need or how best to achieve it. Instead,
Washington has built a sprawling bureaucracy riddled with problems and set
it on autopilot.
And that brings us to today. Budget cuts are in
the pipeline for most federal programs, but many lawmakers vocally oppose
any reductions in security funding.
Whatís painfully clear is this:
the mere fact that a program is given the
label of national or homeland security does not mean that its downsizing
would compromise American safety.
Overwhelming evidence of
and poor management suggests that Washington could spend far less on
security, target it better, and be so much safer.
Meanwhile, the same
that warned in early 2001 of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil also
recommended redoubling funding for education in science and technology.
In the current budget-cutting fever, the urge to
protect boundless funding for national security programs by
dismantling investment essential to this countryís greatness - including
world-class education and infrastructure systems - is bound to be powerful.
So whenever you hear the phrase "homeland
security," watch out: your long-term safety may be at risk.