Thursday, September 02, 2004

What a Dump 

Thanks to Molly Ivins for directing us to Matthew Brzezinski's article on the Department of Homeland Security in the new issue of Mother Jones. The full text is available only to subscribers, but the excerpt below will pique your interest:
I had come to the NAC as one of the first journalists to get an inside look at what was billed as the most ambitious government overhaul since the creation of the Pentagon in 1947. Unveiled on March 1, 2003, the Department of Homeland Security has been touted as the Bush administration's bold response to the new threats facing America in the post-Cold War world of global terrorism. Composed of 22 formerly separate federal agencies, it boasts 186,200 employees. Its far-flung operations are funded by a budget of nearly $27 billion—roughly the equivalent of Microsoft's revenues. On any given day, these megabucks go to screening 1.5 million airline passengers, inspecting 57,000 trucks and shipping containers, and making 266 arrests and 24 drug seizures. Each day, the department reviews 2,200 intelligence reports and cables, issues information bulletins to as many as 18,000 recipients, and trains 3,500 federal officers from 75 different agencies. It deploys 108 patrol aircraft, has a fleet of more than 350,000 vehicles, operates 238 remote video surveillance systems, and stands watch over 8,000 federal facilities, ports, power plants, tunnels, and bridges. And that's just a sampling of DHS's myriad activities, which the agency has posted on its website to give taxpayers a taste of what they get for $75 million a day in security spending.

On paper, DHS is a colossus, and I had naively expected that its headquarters would be equally impressive. But at first, I couldn't even find Building 3. I wandered down the main road, past the heavy hydraulic vehicle barriers, no-trespassing notices, cameras, and some landscapers making a racket with a leaf-blower. Buildings 18, 11, 22, 5—all occupied by various Navy spy programs—were plainly visible, but not 3. The landscapers were not much help. "Maybe that way," said one, with a noncommittal wave of his rake. That led me down Intelligence Way to the intersection of Cryptologic Court, which seemed a fanciful name for what was essentially a service entrance to a dark, dank courtyard dominated by an industrial-sized power generator. The only thing missing for the Dickensian tableau to be complete was a couple of Dumpsters overflowing with garbage. This couldn't possibly be it. "Yeah, just down there," said a passerby emerging from beneath a brick archway that led to a narrow fire lane forking off from the desolate courtyard. The little alley was barely wide enough for a car, much less a Cabinet secretary's motorcade, and at the end of it was a dull gray steel door, such as you might see at the side entrance of a warehouse or a seedy after-hours club. A small plaque was affixed to the unpainted wall: The Department of Homeland Security.

The war on terror has many fronts, not the least of which is the one right here at home. But as I learned in more than two years of reporting on the often neglected domestic front lines of the war on terror, defending the homeland simply doesn't appear to have captured the imagination of the White House the way, say, a firefight in Falluja does.

Hamstrung by special interests, staffed with B-team political appointees, and crippled by a lack of funding and political support, DHS is a premier example of how the administration's misplaced priorities—and its obsession with Iraq—have come at the direct expense of homeland security.

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