Whither DHS?

It’s been 15 years since that fateful September day in 2001 when the world changed for America when 19 terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon (one plane did not make it to its intended target – thought to be the White House or Capitol Building – and was crashed in Shanksville, PA), killing nearly 3,000 people . In a rush of adrenaline beginning on September 12, 2001, there was a crash effort to confront the threat of terrorism and make America more secure. A spigot of government spending was turned on and $1 trillion has been spent since 9/11 to defend against the likes of al Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist threats. Part of that $1 trillion includes the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003. With more than 240,000 employees and a budget of over $60 billion, has DHS made us more secure?

That we have, fortunately, not suffered a second large-scale terrorist attack is often cited as evidence that the efforts of homeland security have worked and that the spending has been worthwhile. But it could also be the case that – whether it’s al Qaeda or ISIS – terrorists have chosen not to attack us. Reality is probably somewhere in-between. Conversely, the fact that there have been – thankfully, relatively few – smaller acts of terrorism (mostly lone wolf and homegrown, such as Orlando nightclub shooter, Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people and wounded another 53) doesn’t mean that homeland security has utterly failed. Perfect security is a Quixotic quest and it would be unfair to expect such from DHS.

DHS’s proposed fiscal year 2017 budget is $66.8 billion – more than double the department’s first budget of $31.1 billion in 2003. DHSs’ main operating components – Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Secret Service, Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) – command the lion’s share of the DHS budget. But while homeland security spending has increased nearly two-fold in 13 years, the way the money is spent has remained more or less the same based on how the budget is allocated (the only real changes being an increase for FEMA and a decrease for TSA in terms of their share of the budget).

DHS Component 2003 2016
CIS 5% 4%
FEMA 17% 21%
CBP 19% 21%
ICE 10% 9%
Secret Service 4% 3%
TSA 15% 11%
Coast Guard 20% 15%

Of course, one could argue that the relatively constant budget allocations means that DHS has the formula for homeland security spending correct. However, given that the department was created hastily by cobbling together 22 federal agencies, it seems unlikely that 13 years of “more of the same” is the right formula. More likely, it reflects bureaucratic infighting, with each component trying to keep its respective budget share – much the same as the military services do with the Defense Department budget.

Also, the fact that CIS, CBP and ICE have the terms customs and immigration in common begs the question of whether three separate agencies, which together account for over a third of DHS’s budget, are necessary to accomplish what seem to be overlapping missions – especially when one of the arguments made for creating DHS was that it would eliminate bureaucratic redundancies.

The DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) reviews the department’s programs and operations and recommends needed improvements to ensure that money is spent effectively and efficiently, but this is not the same thing as determining whether money is being spent rationally. Homeland security programs and program budgets should be fulfilling requirements linked to capabilities to conduct missions that enable the department to achieve its strategic goals and objectives. That is the essence of performance management that is outcome based. Moreover, program choices and budget decisions need to be made with cost-effectiveness, risk and other tradeoffs in mind.

So 13 years after the creation of DHS we have more security at our airports and borders, but we don’t really know if we’re truly more safe and secure. And we don’t know whether the money being on homeland security (putting aside whether $60 billion is too much or too little for DHS) is being spent in the best way to enhance security or whether what amounts to “more of the same” is just bureaucratic inertia.

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Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with the Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.


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