After September 11, the President of the United States told budget director Mitch Daniels there would be three conditions under which a deficit would be acceptable: recession, national emergency and war: “Lucky me, I hit the trifecta.” First the trifecta, now, with the announcement of his new cabinet-level homeland security department, George W. Bush has pulled a hat trick. In one stroke, Bush overwhelmed the mounting questions about his administration’s pre-9/11 performance regarding terrorism, placed himself in the forefront of change, and undid the Democrats’ 2002 election strategy. Not bad for a President who, of late, was somewhat foundering on the Middle East and 9/11 questions.
The creation of this new federal department–which will result from combining 100 or so agencies–is, in theory, not a bad idea. But all depends on the specifics. The Bush proposal offers members of Congress, policy wonks and pundits much to chew on (and perhaps chew up). The obvious questions were quickly aired in the initial round of analysis. Can agencies of disparate cultures be quickly merged into an entity that functions smoothly? What about the non-homeland security responsibilities of agencies being lassoed into this one big bureaucracy? FEMA is a good example. It spends most of its resources handling crises like hurricanes and floods–not terrorist attacks. But under the Bush plan, it will be managed by people whose mission is to prevent and (if they fail) react to terrorist strikes. Understandably, these officials will likely not care much about FEMA’s non-terrorism duties, and FEMA officials can be expected to cater to the desires of their superiors. So will the non-terrorism operations of FEMA deteriorate? If the problem-ridden Immigration and Naturalization Service is folded into the new department, will it turn into an agency with a terrible bias in favor of keeping non-citizens out of the United States? After all, if security becomes the overriding concern of the INS, it can be expected to err drastically in this direction.
Another subject that requires deep-thinking is the intelligence functions of the new agency. Apparently, the homeland security department will conduct its own terrorism-related analysis. But how will it coordinate with the CIA, the FBI, and the dozen other intelligence agencies? Will it be yet one more bureaucratic competitor in a community of agencies renowned for their inability to operate jointly, or will it be a manager that actually is able to force the other intelligence services to work effectively with one another? If the latter, what will be the source of its power to force cooperation? Also, why start up another intelligence analysis unit, especially in an agency that supposedly will not be collecting intelligence of its own? The department’s analysis will have to be based on information gathered by other services. That assumes the other services will know what to send to these analysts and be willing to do so. And the issue is not merely sharing. Generally, the further analysts are from the collectors, the harder it is for them to produce good analysis. Will the analysts at the new department end up merely coordinating the various analyses kicked out by the other agencies? That could have some value. But it would not be a change that addresses the serious analysis problems that have been exposed at both the FBI and the CIA by 9/11.