Friday, February 04, 2005

Washington Post: Tom Ridge Made A Mess of Homeland Security

Yahoo! News - Infighting Cited at Homeland Security: "Infighting Cited at Homeland Security

Wed Feb 2, 1:10 PM ET Top Stories - washingtonpost.com


By John Mintz, Washington Post Staff Writer

As its leadership changes for the first time, the Department of Homeland Security remains hampered by personality conflicts, bureaucratic bottlenecks and an atmosphere of demoralization, undermining its ability to protect the nation against terrorist attack, according to current and former administration officials and independent experts.

Although the 22-month-old department has vast powers over the lives of travelers, immigrants and citizens, it remains a second-tier agency in the clout it commands within President Bush (news - web sites)'s Cabinet, the officials said. Pockets of dysfunction are scattered throughout the 180,000-employee agency, they said.


There is wide consensus that the agency has made important strides in a number of areas, including establishing high-speed communications links with state and local authorities, researching sensors to detect explosives and biopathogens, and addressing vulnerabilities in the nation's aviation system. Its weaknesses, including scant progress in protecting thousands of U.S. chemical plants, rail yards and other elements of the nation's critical infrastructure, have received considerable public attention as well.


Less well known is the role that turf battles, personal animosities and bureaucratic hesitancy have played in limiting the headway made by the infant department, an amalgam of 22 federal agencies that Congress merged after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said.


• The department made little progress protecting infrastructure because officials spent much of their time on detailed strategic plans for that task and believed they were technically prohibited by law from spending money on most such efforts. Others in government disagreed, and DHS officials did not reword the technical legal language until recent months.


• Two arms of the department gridlocked over efforts to secure hazardous chemicals on trains -- one of Congress's most feared terrorist-attack scenarios.


• Lengthy delays in deciding which agency would take the lead in tracking people and cargo at U.S. ports of entry resulted from similar disputes. Efforts to develop tamper-proof shipping containers were among the initiatives stalled.


• The department's investigative arm, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has operated under severe financial crisis for more than a year -- to the point that use of agency vehicles and photocopying were at times banned. The problem stems from funding disputes with other DHS agencies.


Richard A. Falkenrath, who until last May was Bush's deputy homeland security adviser, said many officials at the department were so inexperienced in grasping the levers of power in Washington, and so bashful about trying, that they failed to make progress on some fronts.


"The department has accomplished a great deal in immensely difficult circumstances, but it could have accomplished even more if it had had more aggressive and experienced staff," said Falkenrath, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It would have done better if it had been less timid, less insular and less worried about facing down internal and external opposition."


"This department is immensely powerful in society, given its central role in foreign trade, immigration and transportation," he added. "But it is far less powerful in interagency meetings and the White House situation room."


Michael Chertoff, a federal appeals court judge who is Bush's nominee to succeed the department's first secretary, Tom Ridge, begins confirmation hearings today. He has been described as a no-nonsense administrator who would not hesitate to intercede in turf wars or get tough with recalcitrant bureaucrats.

Growing Pains

Homeland Security leaders accept many of the criticisms of the department's performance by government officials and experts but reject others as unfair. "Nobody fully understands the complexity of our task: to build a department out of 22 agencies, operate it, reorganize it, and design and build networks and systems that will defend the nation in perpetuity," said Ridge, who stepped down yesterday. Ridge is widely credited with managing the first phase of the most complicated government reorganization since the 1940s. But the former Pennsylvania governor also is noted for having a politician's desire to please all comers, which resulted in some policy quandaries remaining unaddressed for long periods, officials and experts said.


Top DHS officials point out that much of their time has been spent crafting eight huge internal initiatives. Finished in some cases only in recent weeks, they map out the department's new information technology, payroll, personnel, procurement and other systems.


Among other time-consuming initiatives were laying out new doctrines for counterterrorism preparedness that assigned the responsibilities of many agencies before and after an attack. Almost all this work, which involved tedious vetting by dozens of agencies, is now complete, but it was invisible to the public and will yield results only in the future, officials said.


"These are a family of plans coming into play that's received virtually no publicity," said retired Coast Guard Adm. James M. Loy, deputy secretary of homeland security, who is widely described as the department's strongest manager. "When he comes, we want to say, 'Judge Chertoff, here is the strategic plan.' "


All the while, Homeland Security has had to contend with the daily demands of searching air travelers, patrolling harbors, protecting the president, distributing threat warnings to state and local agencies, and many other duties.





But several current and former officials said the department remains underfinanced and understaffed and suffers from weak leadership.

"DHS is still a compilation of 22 agencies that aren't integrated into a cohesive whole," said its recently departed inspector general, Clark Kent Ervin, who released many critical reports and was not reappointed after a falling-out with Ridge. Asked for examples of ineffectiveness, he replied: "I don't know where to start. . . . I've never seen anything like it."

Ervin cited a report from his office last month that DHS immigration inspectors had continued to let dozens of people using stolen foreign passports enter the United States -- even after other governments had notified the agency of the passport numbers. Using stolen passports is a well-known tactic of al Qaeda operatives.

Even when immigration officials realized someone had entered the United States on a stolen passport, they did not routinely notify sister agencies that track illegal immigrants, the report said.

When officials made missteps such as this, Ridge rarely intervened, Ervin said. "Tom Ridge is a prince of a man, but he's not a tough guy," he said.

"Nobody's kicking anybody to do things" at Homeland Security, said Seth Stodder, former policy and planning director at the department's Customs and Border Protection agency. "There's a reluctance to make decisions that will be unpopular with the loser, so things just drift."

Stodder and other government officials said the department's main problem is that, under pressure from the White House to keep staffing lean, it lacks a policy staff to study its largest strategic challenges. The Pentagon (news - web sites), by contrast, has 2,000 people doing that, he said.

"It's very thinly staffed at the top of DHS, and there's no policy vision . . . thinking through the main threats," Stodder said. In the absence of such strategic thinking, he added, "DHS practices management by inbox, getting distracted by daily emergencies" such as a congressman's complaint about a late-arriving passport.

Acknowledging that the lack of a policy staff was a mistake, DHS officials say one will be launched within days.

Infrastructure Protection
One of the department's biggest failings is its performance securing the U.S. infrastructure, some members of Congress and administration officials said. Fifteen people declined requests to apply for the undersecretary job supervising this area, and the person who took it, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Libutti, was not confirmed until 2003.

Libutti was unfamiliar with Washington's ways, as was his subordinate who directly oversaw infrastructure, former Coca-Cola Co. executive Robert P. Liscouski. Both became distracted by small bureaucratic obstacles they could have surmounted, other officials said.

Members of Congress and others in the administration have expressed frustration at what they say are lengthy delays in producing a list of vulnerable infrastructure sites. Officials involved in infrastructure protection said some of the delays were caused by Liscouski, who, they said, at times failed to coordinate with others working on the matter. He has had several bitter arguments with members of Congress and their staffs, they said.

Finally, the infrastructure division was at times distracted by arguments between camps of officials pressing the competing agendas of firms or other agencies offering plans to secure plants and landmarks, officials said.

Liscouski denied that any such disputes distracted his office, and he denied failing to meet with colleagues. He said he met continually with them and had "an open-door policy." He disputed suggestions that his office dragged its feet in securing or preparing lists of infrastructure sites.

"We worked with a sense of urgency, and we made significant progress," he said. "But this work had never been done before, and it was hard."

Liscouski said that until the past few months, technical language in DHS budgets barred his office from spending money on chemical plants and other sites. Department officials said that within days they will announce distribution of $92 million, the first large expenditures for these purposes. The money will be given to states by a separate DHS bureaucracy.

The infrastructure office also has been hobbled by turf fights. Another DHS agency -- the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), with 45,000 airport screeners -- said that a sentence in a budget law established it as overseer of security on trains, including ones moving dangerous chemicals. Hassles between TSA and infrastructure officials slowed progress, including efforts to secure chemicals that travel on tracks near the U.S. Capitol, for a year, officials said.

"I'm sorry to say, since 9/11 we have essentially done nothing" to secure chemical plants and trains carrying chemicals, Falkenrath told Congress last week. "This [issue] stands out as an enormous vulnerability we had the authority to address."

The TSA's claims that it supervises all transportation security also led to fights with DHS agencies that handle immigration and customs. The struggles delayed progress for a year on developing anti-tampering technology for shipping containers and deciding which databases to use to track foreigners and cargo entering the country, officials said.

The fighting amounted to "a civil war within the U.S. government," one former official said.

Eventually Ridge decided that the TSA should not lead the way on these issues. But an authoritative study released in December by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Heritage Foundation concluded that the TSA's actions led to years-long "policy impasses." It said the DHS section that oversees the agencies involved, and which refereed the struggles -- Border and Transportation Security -- was "not particularly effective" in straightening it out.

Several officials described the undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security, former representative Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), as a consensus-builder who had difficulty demanding an end to the turf fights. Especially troublesome was a personality conflict between the affable Hutchinson and one of his subordinates, Robert C. Bonner, the aggressive head of Customs and Border Protection, whose airport and seaport inspectors investigate people and cargo.

"There were knock-down, drag-out meetings every day" between leaders in some parts of the department, said Loy, who added that "management styles can pour gasoline" on such arguments. But he said the fights are now resolved.

Asked about conflicts with Bonner, Hutchinson said: "I'd be enormously disappointed if I didn't have agency leaders who leaned forward and fought for their agencies." But, he added, "people who work under me know I make decisions."

Through a spokesman, Bonner declined to comment.

Loy, who once ran the TSA and will step down March 1, said the Homeland Security Department is fated to be criticized for its public failures, such as creating long lines at airports, and rarely praised for its success protecting the country.

"Most of the publicity is bad, but that's the nature of our work," he said. "We operate in a fishbowl.""