November 26, 2002
Chairs on the Ship of State
President Bush has his Homeland Security Agency. I hope he’s happy.
I doubt that American taxpayers and citizens will be especially
pleased when it all shakes out, but the president has parlayed this
year’s election results into the appearance of decisiveness and
a short-term political victory.
for him. Not so good for us.
legislation will sweep all or parts of 22 different agencies – including
the Coast Guard, Secret Service, INS and others – under the umbrella
of a new Cabinet-level agency that employs about 170,000 people
and has a current budget of around $40 billion. Former Pennsylvania
Gov. Tom Ridge, who has been the president’s chief adviser and honcho
on homeland security since shortly after 9/11, has been named to
head the new agency.
QUICK POLITICAL FIX
new agency amounts to the most extensive restructuring of the federal
government since the Department of Defense (arguably an Orwellian
formulation; War Department was probably more honest) was cobbled
together after World War II. But that reorganization was undertaken
in a relatively deliberative fashion.
committees started holding hearings on the proposed restructuring
in 1945. It wasn’t until 1947, after most of the possible ramifications
had at least been discussed in public, if not necessarily actually
solved, that legislation was presented to President Truman for him
to sign. Even then implementation was not trouble-free.
contrast, when it came down to it, the House had to vote on last-minute
revisions a couple of weeks ago in about 48 hours. Until the day
of the actual vote, none of the legislators had the actual language
that had been added or revised as a result of negotiations with
a few Senators who had been wheedled post-election by the White
House; they had to rely on summaries done by Congressional Quarterly.
Those summaries were probably fairly competent, but so often in
complex legislation the devil is in the details.
is almost certainly accurate to say that no Member of Congress had
read the bill in its entirety before casting a vote on it. It is
certainly justifiable to doubt if even the most wonkish of the legislators
understood the implications. Maybe a few aides had a good picture,
but MCs are often just too busy to get to such matters before voting.
there’s the provenance of the Homeland Security (and doesn’t the
name itself have a Mussolinian whiff to it?) idea. The reorganization
was originally proposed by congressional Democrats desperate to
be seen as relevant in the wake of skyrocketing approval numbers
for Bush in the wake of 9/11. The Bush administration ignored it
– until March or April of this year when there was fairly widespread
discussion (remember?) of culpable failure to connect the dots before
the attack and the possibility of an independent commission to get
to the bottom of intelligence failures.
of the shuffling to avoid outright responsibility on the part of
the administration was to embrace the idea of a Homeland Security
Agency. You don’t have to look into the pre-9/11 failures too closely,
was the message official Washington and most of the lapdog media
got. We’re handling it by reorganizing.
course, since the reorganizing didn’t include any reassessment of
the way any of these agencies operated – and didn’t involve the
FBI or the CIA, the two agencies most responsible for the kind of
intelligence the U.S. collects – there is little reason to suspect
that the creation of this new agency will make a single American
notably safer from foreign or domestic attacks. This is especially
so given bureaucratic dynamics.
there was deadwood to be cut in any of the agencies incorporated
into the new monstrosity – and you can be sure there is plenty –
the sensible thing would have been to assess each agency first,
reform and refine it, and then place it under the new umbrella.
Having them placed into the HSA without review or reform will give
the new Homeland Security Commissar every bureaucratic incentive
to protect these agencies now under his care from anything resembling
serious reform – and especially from cutbacks. The government should
have cut before it pasted.
THE REAL PROBLEM
not one of those who claims the government knew about the impending
attacks and purposely avoided doing anything about them. But it
is becoming at least likely that the government had a good deal
of information about the hijackers in advance, and the opportunity
to get more. It wasn’t lack of power to surveill the American people,
or even lack of information, that caused this intelligence failure.
It was failure to communicate among the agencies, often exacerbated
by turf conflicts, that was the major cause of this failure of the
government to do its single most justifiable function.
logical look at the situation, then, would have included not only
ideas to improve communication and deconstruct some of the walls
agencies have built around themselves. It would have included proposals
to cut back deadwood and useless functions at many agencies. It
is often the sheer proliferation of personnel, especially in a government
agency, but also in business enterprises, that makes it difficult
for people in different branches of an agency or department to communicate
effectively and to coordinate their activities.
there are layers upon layers of bureaucracy, even a well-intentioned
person trying to do the right thing – like get news about a flock
of Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons for no obvious commercial
reason to the right people at the FBI – can encounter mainly brick
walls and frustration. Repeated encounters with the bureaucratic
ooze is often a contributing factor to the kind of apathy, lethargy
and sense of hopelessness or powerlessness one often notices in
an approach that actually contemplated improving the situation that
contributed to pre-9/11 failures would almost certainly have involved
cutting and trimming bureaucracies, probably even eliminating a
few. It would have focused on moving information and spreading it
around to people who might be in a position to act on it or to make
connections rather than on changing nameplates on government buildings.
have gotten mixed opinions from various people I have talked to
about whether the FBI and CIA should have been part of the new HSA.
One retired law enforcement officer and consultant with whom I speak
regularly is relieved that they weren’t put under the HSA umbrella
– although he thinks both are pathetic and need a lot of reform
– because that would have made them even more politicized, ineffective
and unaccountable. Another with a similar background is outraged
that they weren’t, because they are the major problems and shoving
them into a new department might – might – have provided something
of a wake-up call.
suspect that my second source understands but doesn’t want to say
that the real purpose of creating the new department was not to
solve any intelligence shortcomings or to make the American people
more secure, but to create the appearance of taking decisive action.
In other words, the creation of the new department is strictly a
cosmetic act designed to distract people from the fact that nobody
in government is really looking into the sources of the shortcomings
or doing anything to fix them.
in Congress or the bureaucracy really wants to find out why the
government failed so massively in any detail, because a full understanding
would implicate too many people – often enough including those charged
with trying to fix things. So they move the deck chairs around,
congratulate themselves, feed stories to the lapdog press, and hope
no small child points out the emperor’s lack of raiment.
this were simply reshuffling, Americans might not have cause for
sustained outrage, even though it assures steady growth in the budgets
of all these agencies – new departments generally have a honeymoon
of fairly lengthy duration before they face GAO reports that are
ignored by Congress. Unfortunately, the changes involved in the
Homeland Security legislation are not all neutral. Somehow they
managed (surprise!) to slip in provisions that increase the power
of government at the expense of the liberty of the citizens, as
Jefferson would have expected.
fair amount has been written, by commentators from William Safire
to Clarence Page, about former Iran-Contra scoundrel Adm. John Poindexter
and his "Total Information Awareness" program at the Pentagon.
The new legislation will give this project, already underway, to
collect information from all citizens on credit card, licensing,
passport, prescription, travel and other sundry transactions, even
more authority than Poindexter has already assumed.
legislation also concentrates more power in the hands of the executive
branch. Proponents argue this is needed to provide a swift response
to terrorist threats. But without trimming and paring some of the
agencies, they are likely to be at least as ineffective as before
and grow more ineffective. And the more power is concentrated the
less accountable it is likely to be.
legislation also further blurs the distinction between the military
and civilian law enforcement. The administration wants to be able
to use the military in such endeavors from time to time – as if
it hadn’t already seriously overcommitted the military overseas
– so it included some exceptions to the Posse Comitatus Act, which
drew a line between military and civilian some 125 years ago. This
is incredibly dangerous and wrongheaded.
also will provide for anyone identified as a potential terrorist,
or a potential associate of a potential terrorist, to be subject
to surveillance, interrogation and detention – even U.S. citizens
– without access to a lawyer or family members, or even any required
acknowledgment that a person is being held. This kind of secret
police stuff sounds like something out of Nazi Germany or Soviet
Russia, or North Korea. But it will be the law of the land in the
land of the "free."
congressional Democrats, once they had been snookered by the president
when he hijacked their idea and made it his own, didn’t raise these
kind of substantive objections to the homeland security scheme.
Instead, they complained that the Bushies didn’t want to cede enough
power to government employee unions. When that didn’t work they
complained that the House had favored special interests by reducing
the potential liability pharmaceutical manufacturers might face
if certain vaccines were distributed on a mass scale and some problems
kind of trivial complaints illustrate the cluelessness or complicity
of the Democratic branch of the Government Party. One would almost
cheer that they failed – except that the end result is more centralized,
unaccountable power and more limits on the personal liberties Americans
have traditionally enjoyed – and which our leaders insist (all the
more so as war approaches and real oppression looms) they are trying
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