Terminating the Department of Homeland Security

  • Chris Edwards
November 1, 2014

Congress created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002 by combining 22 existing federal agencies responsible for a vast array of activities. President George W. Bush promised that the new department would "improve efficiency without growing government" and would cut out "duplicative and redundant activities that drain critical homeland security resources."1

The lean and efficient DHS that the president promised did not materialize. The department’s spending increased from $18 billion in 2002 to $43 billion in 2014.2 Its workforce expanded from 157,000 employees in 2003 to 190,000 by 2014.3 And far from being efficient, DHS agencies are some of the most poorly managed in the federal government. DHS agencies include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Customs and Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Coast Guard, and Secret Service.4

This essay describes some of the failures of DHS and its agencies and proposes that Congress close down the department. DHS agencies that perform important work should be moved to other federal departments or structured as stand-alone organizations reporting directly to the president. Other DHS agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), should be terminated because their activities would be better carried out by state governments and the private sector.

General Mismanagement

The creation of DHS was a mistake. Since the beginning the department has suffered from management failures and been on the "high-risk" list of troubled federal organizations put out by the Government Accountability Office. Employee surveys find that DHS is the worst department to work for in the federal government.5

The results from a 2014 survey of 40,000 DHS employees are grim.6 Only 42 percent of DHS employees say they are satisfied with the department, only 25 percent have a positive view of their leaders' ability to "generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce,'' and only 39 percent say department leaders "maintain high standards of honesty and integrity."

A 2014 Washington Post investigation found that many DHS employees say they have "a dysfunctional work environment" with "abysmal morale."7 Not surprisingly, DHS has a very high employee turnover rate.8 Current and former DHS officials told thePost that "the department can be an infuriating, exhausting place to work" with "stifling bureaucracy."9

One of the exhausting factors is that DHS leaders have to devote extraordinary amounts of time dealing with the complex tangle of 90 congressional committees and subcommittees that oversee the department.10 Congress is partly to blame for DHS's failings, having created such an inefficient oversight structure.

One might have hoped that putting a layer of expert DHS officials over top of the 22 agencies would help improve governance, but it has not. Consider FEMA, which had been a stand-alone agency before 2002. It had already been known for sluggish responses to disasters, but FEMA's performance during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was worse than ever.

Or consider the Secret Service, which has had a series of management failures in recent years, despite being overseen by DHS. The Service has spent huge amounts on security during foreign presidential trips, yet trips have been undermined by scandals related to prostitution and drunken agents.11 At home, the Service had a series of embarrassing security failures leading up to the remarkable White House intruder incident of September 2014.12

TSA has long struggled with poor management. In 2012 a House committee report found that the agency's operations are "costly, counterintuitive, and poorly executed."13 A separate House report the same year said that the agency "suffers from bureaucratic morass and mismanagement."14 Former TSA chief Kip Hawley argued in an op-ed that the agency is "hopelessly bureaucratic."15 And former acting TSA chief Kenneth Kaspirin said that the agency has "a toxic culture" with "terrible" morale.16

Employee misconduct is a problem in numerous DHS agencies, including the TSA.17 One concern at TSA is employee theft from passenger baggage.18 Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) appears to have a growing problem with agent corruption related to drug and human smuggling.19 Also, according to a Washington Post editorial on CBP, there has been "an alarming number of incidents involving the use of lethal force . . . all too frequently under circumstances that suggest the agency is indifferent or hostile to the most basic standards of restraint, transparency, and self-policing."20

Many organizations have occasional management problems. But DHS leaders allow problems within agencies to fester for years, promising to make changes only after major scandals erupt. In the wake of the recent White House intruder incident, the head of the Secret Service resigned. But the head of DHS did not resign and said very little about it, presumably to evade responsibility. If DHS does not proactively correct agency problems, and DHS leaders do not take responsibility for failures, then the DHS superstructure provides little management value.

Poor Decisionmaking

Federal departments frequently make wasteful spending decisions, and DHS and its agencies are no exception. In one recent case, CBP built 21 small homes for border agents in Ajo, Arizona, at a cost of $680,000 each, in a town where the average home price is just $86,500. A 2014 DHS inspector general review of the project concluded, "this is a classic example of inadequate planning and management leading to wasteful spending."21

This was a small project, but these sorts of problems plague major DHS projects as well. In their 2011 book, Terror, Security, and Money , homeland security experts John Mueller and Mark Stewart discuss how DHS often fails to rigorously evaluate projects to see whether the benefits outweigh the costs.22 A 2010 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report made similar criticisms, as have GAO reports on numerous DHS projects.23

Without a rigorous process to steer spending to high-value uses, DHS has funded many boondoggle projects, including:

  • Radiation Detectors: DHS spent $230 million over five years on radiation detectors for cargo containers before withdrawing the project as a failure in 2011.24 The GAO and NAS were highly critical of DHS's handling of the project.25

  • Full-Body Scanners: TSA spent hundreds of millions of dollars installing and operating Rapiscan scanners at U.S. airports, but research found that they were easy for terrorists to foil.26 The machines were withdrawn in 2013, but a different type of body scanner is now widely used. Mueller and Stewart found that such scanners fail a cost-benefit analysis "quite comprehensively."27 As for the TSA, it did not perform a cost-benefit analysis of full-body scanners before rolling them out nationwide.28

  • SPOT Program: TSA spends about $230 million a year on the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, which tries to catch terrorists by their suspicious behaviors in airports.29 GAO found that TSA "deployed SPOT nationwide before first determining whether there was a scientifically valid basis" for it.30 TSA also did not perform a cost-benefit analysis of SPOT.31 GAO says that there is little, if any, evidence that SPOT works, and has recommended that the program be cancelled.32

  • High-Tech Border Control: CBP spent $1 billion on the SBInet virtual fence project for a 53-mile portion of the Arizona-Mexico border. The project, which involved video cameras, radar, sensors, and other technologies, was begun in 2006 and cancelled in 2011 as a failure.33 Another high-tech system for the Arizona border is now moving ahead, but its effectiveness is yet to be proven.34

The concern is not that DHS makes unavoidable mistakes, but that it puts too little effort into researching how best to allocate spending to improve safety. In their book, Mueller and Stewart make an assessment of the costs and benefits of homeland security spending since 2001. They conclude that "increases in American homeland security expenditures have been wildly inefficient."35 DHS has been too willing to throw money at any idea that might conceivably prevent a worst-case scenario, instead of balancing the benefits and costs of projects based on hard data. Policymakers eventually cancel some boondoggles after years of failure, but agencies should be performing rigorous analyses on projects up front before they spend hundreds of millions of dollars.

Civil Liberties Concerns and Mission Creep

DHS is a powerful department that conducts a wide range of intelligence, investigative, and law enforcement activities. But the DHS "mission is not entirely clear" says the Washington Post , and indeed it has grown broader and more amorphous over time.36 DHS has expanded into law enforcement activities that are properly the role of the states, and also into areas that should be free of government encroachment altogether. Put another way, "mission creep" is a serious problem at the DHS, creating an ongoing threat to our civil liberties.

Here are examples illustrating the expansive and intrusive activities of DHS and its agencies:

  • CBP pursues warrantless searches of general aviation aircraft, and the TSA engages in warrantless searches of valet parked cars at airports.37

  • TSA is aggressively conducting searches at rail stations, transit stations, and other public venues across the country, resulting in arrests for minor offenses such as drug possession.38

  • TSA is teaming with state governments to put checkpoints on highways to perform searches of trucks for drugs and other items.39

  • DHS provides grants to towns and cities for license plate readers and video surveillance systems.40 DHS agencies have also gained access to national license plate databases built from the license reader systems.41

  • DHS provides grants to towns and cities to purchase military-style equipment for their police forces, such as heavily fortified vehicles and sound cannons.42 Meanwhile, the Department of Defense has transferred 800 armored vehicles and other military equipment to hundreds of towns and cities in recent years.43

  • DHS provides grants to towns and cities to purchase aerial drones, and it uses a growing number of drones itself.44

  • DHS gave a grant to Tacoma, Washington, to buy a Stingray device that local police "quietly used for five years."45 These surveillance devices "sweep up records of every mobile telephone call, text message, and data transfer up to a half-mile from the device."46 The equipment is becoming widely used by police across the nation.

Perhaps the most serious threat to civil liberties is the growth in "fusion centers," which are jointly operated by DHS and other federal, state, and local agencies. The more than 70 fusion centers across the nation are supposed to combat terrorism, but they generate little useful intelligence to that end and yet cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year.47 The centers amass information about Americans that is generally already in the public domain, and often relates to lawful political activities. For example, fusion centers were active in spying on the Occupy Wall Street movement.48

A bipartisan Senate report in 2012 concluded that fusion centers produced intelligence of "uneven quality-oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens' civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism." 49 Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is right that fusion centers are "providing very little in terms of counterterrorism capabilities"and should be abolished.50

A growing number of incidents suggest that DHS is trying to act as a domestic police force on matters that have nothing to do with national threats. In July, a North Carolina woman was surprised to see six DHS vehicles full of agents pull up to her house and seize her Land Rover. DHS has refused to return the vehicle, apparently because it was an imported vehicle that did not meet emissions standards.51 The same month, a small-scale army led by DHS including two helicopters, numerous armored vehicles, and 10 police cars swooped into the small town of Livingston, Illinois, to arrest a single individual on child pornography charges.52

A recent investigative article by the Albuquerque Journal's Michael Coleman summarized other DHS activities:

Today, in addition to protecting America's borders and airports, the department is interrogating people suspected of pirating movies at Ohio theaters, seizing counterfeit NBA merchandise in San Antonio and working pickpocket cases alongside police in Albuquerque. Homeland Security agents are visiting elementary schools and senior centers to warn of dangers lurking on the Internet.53

These incidents reflect vast mission creep. Coleman further reports, "Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents are now working with local police all over New Mexico, aiming to become an integral part of domestic crime fighting in the state."54 HSI agents in New Mexico are training adult dancers about the dangers of sex trafficking, organizing seminars at retirement centers to inform residents about fraud schemes, and teaching school kids about the dangers of Internet predators.

DHS was born out of a fear of terrorism, but policymakers and DHS have used that fear to build a vastly bloated budget and to extend federal police power into many areas where it does not belong. Even former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge noted about DHS: "They've kind of lost their way . . . I was proud to be associated with those men and women, but it just seems to me . . . the focus-the primary focus-has been substantially diminished."55

Proposed Reforms

A huge new DHS headquarters is planned for a 176-acre site in Washington, D.C. The project is years behind schedule and $1.5 billion over budget.56 It may prove to be too much of a boondoggle even for Congress, and some lawmakers are leaning toward cancelling it.

That would be a good reform, and it should be followed by shutting down DHS itself.57 Of course, there are many DHS agencies that perform important functions, and they should be moved to other departments or set up as stand-alone agencies. Other DHS agencies should be terminated, including the TSA and FEMA.

TSA operates security screening at commercial airports across the nation. This Cato study discusses TSA's poor track record and argues that we should privatize airport screening, which is the successful approach taken in Canada and much of Europe.

FEMA distributes disaster aid to individuals and state and local governments, and it subsidizes flood insurance. FEMA has often been slow, disorganized, and wasteful in its disaster operations, and its flood insurance program has backfired by spurring development in flood-prone areas. This Cato study argues that FEMA should be abolished and its activities performed by the states and the private sector.

DHS illustrates a fundamental problem with the federal government: it tries to do far too much and ends up doing little well. Congress should task the executive branch with only those activities that provide added value not provided by the states and the private sector. And it should narrow the missions of federal agencies to reduce inefficient overlap. Currently, DHS's activities areso broad and ill-defined that it has created unproductive turf wars in the federal bureaucracy.58 DHS's analysis of intelligence overlaps with duties of the FBI, for example, and its cybersecurity activities overlap with those of the National Security Agency.

Congress should also reform itself by streamlining the oversight of federal agencies. It should restructure committees so that each current DHS agency is overseen by a single House and a single Senate committee. That way citizens would know which politicians are responsible for ensuring that particular agencies perform effectively.

A way to narrow and focus the role of DHS agencies is to reform broad policies. Overhauling immigration policies, for example, should aim to simplify the system and reduce the costs of administration and enforcement. Liberalizing drug policies would reduce federal enforcement and incarceration costs. Information on immigration and drug policy reforms is available here and here .

Many Americans are understandably worried about terrorism and domestic security. But a much smaller and more focused set of homeland security agencies would deal with the threats we face more effectively and efficiently. A leaner array of federal security and intelligence agencies would also be less likely to encroach on state responsibilities and less able to undermine our personal freedoms.

1 President George W. Bush, "The Department of Homeland Security," June 2002, www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/book.pdf, pp. 1, 7, 16.

2 Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2015, Historical Tables (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2014), Table 4.1.

3 U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Fedscope database, www.fedscope.opm.gov/employment.asp. The 2014 figure is for June.

4 Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2015 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2014).

5 "Best Places to Work Agency Index Scores," Partnership for Public Service, 2014, http://bestplacestowork.org/BPTW/rankings/overall/large.

6 Survey results reported in Jerry Markon, "DHS Morale Sinks Further Despite New Leadership at the Top, Survey Shows," Washington Post , October 10, 2014.

7 Jerry Markon, Ellen Nakashima, and Alice Crites, "Top-Level Turnover Makes It Harder for DHS to Stay on Top of Evolving Threats," Washington Post , September 21, 2014.

8 Jerry Markon, Ellen Nakashima, and Alice Crites, "Top-Level Turnover Makes It Harder for DHS to Stay on Top of Evolving Threats," Washington Post , September 21, 2014.

9 Jerry Markon, Ellen Nakashima, and Alice Crites, "Top-Level Turnover Makes It Harder for DHS to Stay on Top of Evolving Threats," Washington Post , September 21, 2014.

10 Jerry Markon, "DHS Chafing at Hill Oversight," Washington Post , September 26, 2014.

11 Carol D. Leonnig and David Nakamua,"Document: Major Resources Needed for Obama Africa Trip," Washington Post , June 13, 2013. And See Carol D. Leonnig, David Nakamua, and Michael Birnbaum, " Secret Service Incident in Netherlands was on Heels of Car Wreck During Obama's Miami Trip," Washington Post , March 26, 2014.

12 Carol D. Leonnig, "White House Fence-Jumper Made It Far Deeper into Building Than Previously Known," Washington Post , September 29, 2014.

13 House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Transportation Security, "Rebuilding TSA into a Smarter, Leaner Organization," September 10, 2012, p. 1.

14 House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, "A Decade Later: A Call for TSA Reform," November 16, 2011, pp. 2, 18.

15 Kip Hawley, "Why Airport Security Is Broken and How to Fix It," Wall Street Journal , April 15, 2012. Hawley was TSA administrator from July 2005 to January 2009.

16 Jerry Markon, Ellen Nakashima, and Alice Crites, "Top-Level Turnover Makes It Harder for DHS to Stay on Top of Evolving Threats," Washington Post , September 21, 2014.

17 GAO report summarized in Ruth Tam, "TSA to Reform Misconduct Review Policy," Washington Post , August 1, 2013.

18 Caitlin O'Neil, "400 TSA Employees Fired for Stealing from Passengers from 2002 to 2011," WCPO.com, October 24, 2012.

19 Joseph J. Kolb, "Study Finds Corruption on Rise among Border Agents, Rep Says Security at Risk," FoxNews.com , January 15, 2013.

20 Washington Post , "Policing the Border Patrol," editorial, September 29, 2014.

21 Quoted in Luis Carrasco, "Feds Ajo Housing Project for Border Agents Mismanaged, Too Costly," Arizona Daily Star , September 11, 2014.

22 John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

23 The National Academy report is summarized in ibid., pp. 6-8.

24 This was the Advanced Spectroscope Portal program. See Martin Matishak, "Homeland Security Cancels Troubled Radiation Detector Effort," Global Security Newswire (National Journal ), July 26, 2011.

25 GAO and NAS criticism is summarized in Martin Matishak, "Homeland Security Cancels Troubled Radiation Detector Effort," Global Security Newswire (National Journal ), July 26, 2011.

26 Keaton Mowery et. al., "Security Analysis of a Full-Body Scanner," Proceedings of the 23rd USENIX Security Symposium, August 2014, https://radsec.org/secure1000-sec14.pdf.

27 John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 152.

28 John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 6, 147.

29 SPOT is discussed in Chris Edwards, "Privatizing the Transportation Security Administration," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 742, Cato Institute, November 19, 2013.

30 Government Accountability Office, "Aviation Security: 9/11 Anniversary Observations on TSA's Progress and Challenges in Strengthening Aviation Security," GAO-12-1024T, September 11, 2012, p. 4.

31 Government Accountability Office, "Transportation Security Administration: Progress and Challenges Faced in Strengthening Three Key Security Programs," GAO-12-541T, March 26, 2012, p. 9.

32 GAO study summarized in Ashley Halsey III, "GAO Says There Is No Evidence That a TSA Program to Spot Terrorists Is Effective," Washington Post , November 13, 2013.

33 Jeremy Pelofski, "Administration Giving Up on Full Virtual Fence on Border," Washington Post , January 15, 2011.

34 This is the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan. See Brian Bennett, "GAO Says Border Technology Plan May Be $700-million Waste," Los Angeles Times , March 12, 2014.

35 John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 11.

36 Jerry Markon, Ellen Nakashima, and Alice Crites, "Top-Level Turnover Makes It Harder for DHS to Stay on Top of Evolving Threats," Washington Post , September 21, 2014.

37 Robert Poole, "More DHS Mission Creep," Airport Policy and Security News no. 97, Reason Foundation, January 23, 2014.

38 Ron Nixon, "T.S.A. Expands Duties beyond Airport Security," New York Times , August 6, 2013.

39 CBS News, "TSA Expands from Airports to Tenn. Highways," November 4, 2011.

40 Sen. Tom Coburn, "Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities," December 2012, p. 26.

41 Ellen Nakashima, "ICE Twice Breached Privacy Policy with License-Plate Index," Washington Post , October 30, 2014. And see Josh Hicks, "Homeland Security Wants National Database Using License-Plate Scanners," Washington Post , February 18, 2014.

42 Jennifer Levitz, "Towns Say No Tanks to Militarized Police," Wall Street Journal , February 7, 2014. And see Matt Apuzzo, "Officer Friendly, in a Tank? War Gear Flows to Local Police," New York Times , June 9, 2014.

43 Emma Roller, "How Congress Helped Create Ferguson's Militarized Police," National Journal , August 14, 2014.

44 Robert Beckhusen, "5 Homeland Security 'Bots Coming to Spy on You (If They Aren't Already)," Wired , February 2, 2013.

45 Peter Robison, "Homeland Security Arms Local Cops with Super Spy Bug," Bloomberg Businessweek , August 27, 2014.

46 Peter Robison, "Homeland Security Arms Local Cops with Super Spy Bug," Bloomberg Businessweek , August 27, 2014.

47 Julian Sanchez, "Your Homeland Security Dollars at Work: Tracking Occupy," Downsizing Government, May 23, 2014. And see Julian Sanchez, "Our Broken Panopticon: Senate Report Finds Fusion Centers Expensive and Useless," Cato@Liberty, October 4, 2012.

48 Colin Moynihan, "Officials Cast Wide Net in Monitoring Occupy Protests," New York Times , May 22, 2014.

49 Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Subcommittee on Investigations, "Federal Support for and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers," October 3, 2012.

50 Office of Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), "$1.4 Trillion in Savings: Recommendations for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction," September 2011, p. 8.

51 Steve Ohnesorge, "Couple Has Questions after Agents Seize Land Rovers," WBTV, July 21, 2014. And see Fox News Insider , "Feds Raid Women's Home to Seize . . . A Land Rover?!" August 1, 2014.

52 Curt Libbra, "Federal Raid Near Alhambra Results in Child Porn Charges," Highland News Leader (Southwestern Illinois), July 11, 2014. And see Roche Madden, "Federal Agents Swarm Livingston, Ill.," FOX2now.com (St. Louis), July 10, 2014.

53 Michael Coleman, "Mission Creep: Homeland Security a 'Runaway Train,'" Albuquerque Journal , April 27, 2014. And see Radley Balko, "DHS: A Wasteful, Growing, Fear-Mongering Beast," Washington Post, May 7, 2014.

54 Michael Coleman, "Mission Creep: NM Footprint Grows: 'We've Up-Armored'," Albuquerque Journal , April 28, 2014. Radley Balko discusses the Albuquerque article in Radley Balko, "DHS: A Wasteful, Growing, Fear-Mongering Beast," Washington Post , May 7, 2014

55 Michael Coleman, "Mission Creep: Homeland Security a 'Runaway Train'," Albuquerque Journal , April 27, 2014.

56 Jerry Markon, "DHS Headquarters Funding in Jeopardy," Washington Post , July 4, 2014.

57 David Rittgers discusses reforms needed to shut down DHS in David Rittgers, "Abolish the Department of Homeland Security," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 683, September 8, 2011.

58 Jerry Markon, Ellen Nakashima, and Alice Crites, "Top-Level Turnover Makes It Harder for DHS to Stay on Top of Evolving Threats," Washington Post , September 21, 2014.


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