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Commentary

Bush Plan Is “Just Do Something”


     
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Responding to the embarrassing revelations that the CIA and FBI possessed information that foreshadowed the terrorist attacks on September 11, President Bush—in a flip-flop—endorsed a Democratic proposal for a Department of Homeland Security that combines parts of many disparate government agencies. Unfortunately, the president’s proposal has built up such a head of steam that a new federal bureaucracy is about to be created without adequate thought. Because Democrats and Republicans alike do not want to be labeled as “unpatriotic” in the first post-September 11 congressional elections, members of Congress will probably make only slight modifications to the president’s hastily crafted proposal.

The main debate seems to be about the fairly minor issue of whether the new entity will get exemptions from some of the requirements other government departments must follow-for example, civil service protection for employees, disclosure of information to the public, and restrictions on the use of private consultants. Tom Ridge, the president’s homeland security advisor, claims the new department needs flexibility in personnel policies because “we’re combating a nimble, agile, aggressive enemy, and I think it defies common sense not to give the new secretary and his team the ability to move some people around to reorganize.” Although this logic may be sound as far as it goes, it begs a much more important question: if terrorists are so nimble and agile, then why are the president and Congress creating another ponderous federal bureaucracy in the first place. To reduce the coordination problems among executive branch agencies that has already been exposed by Congress and the press in their investigations of the September 11 attacks, shouldn’t the government be slimmed down instead of built up?

And the taxpayer might be mystified about the absence of the CIA and FBI in this “reform” initiative—since the main problem surrounding September 11 seemed to be the lack of information sharing within and between the two agencies. Omitting those two agencies should arouse suspicion that the reorganization initiative is primarily designed to pretend that the administration is doing something about homeland security rather than administering much needed “tough love” to the security bureaucracies. The president’s popularity is based primarily on his handling of the war on terrorism—now the signature issue of his presidency. With the revelations about the CIA and FBI, public confidence in the government’s ability to combat terrorists had begun to wane. Hence, the need to “do something.”

Even before September 11, the U.S. government had sufficient bureaucratic machinery to deal with terrorist attacks on the homeland without adding a new department. Terrorism had always been a national security issue under the purview of the president’s National Security Council and National Security Advisor. In Washington, the typical response to any crisis is to rearrange organizational charts and add bureaucracies. The real problem revealed by the terrorist attacks is too much bureaucracy—causing too many communication and coordination problems-not too little.

But what about the president’s claim that bringing all these disparate agencies under one roof will end duplication? First, intelligence is the key to homeland defense. Within the new department, a center for assessing threats to the homeland will be created. Yet the Director for Central Intelligence is already supposed to be synthesizing intelligence data from the already too numerous agencies of the intelligence community to create a composite assessment of threat. To perform an identical task for threats specific to the homeland, the new assessment center will also have to rely on information and cooperation from the turf conscious information producers (including the FBI and CIA). In addition, the new department will have to at least partially depend on the plethora of agencies in the largely unconsolidated law enforcement community to take action on its threat assessments. Rather than reducing overlap, the proliferation of organizations that assess intelligence will only exacerbate the already well-publicized coordination problems in the intelligence community.

Bringing agencies under one cabinet secretary does not guarantee that overhead will be reduced—in fact, the opposite is more probable. Actually improving homeland security by making the government more agile would require abolishing agencies (including some of the many agencies not being consolidated under the new cabinet department), slashing layers of bureaucracy, and laying off bureaucrats. Rare in Washington is the department head who would undertake such a purge. If the president wants to perform such badly needed surgery, he must do so before consolidating the agencies under the new secretary. In other words, the president must cut before pasting rather than vice versa. Any new secretary will quickly begin to act as an advocate for his new “pasted together” super agency, rather than making the needed cuts. That individual-heading a department that would be one of the largest bureaucracies in the federal government—would become a powerful proponent of increased funding, personnel, and bureaucracy.

For an illustration of bureaucratic expansion on the heels of agency consolidation, one need look no farther than the example given in President Bush’s speech announcing the new department. After World War II, President Truman consolidated the War and Navy Departments into the Department of Defense under a new Secretary of Defense. Subsequently, over the years, a massive organization—the Office of the Secretary of Defense—has been created to rein in and oversee the military services. Yet more than 50 years later, the individual services still run roughshod over the comparatively weak secretary, and their duplication of effort and lack of coordination are legion. Consolidating even more numerous disparate and sometimes dysfunctional (for example, the Immigration and Naturalization Service) agencies into a new department is likely to result in the same problems and a burgeoning secretarial bureaucracy to attempt to control the whole unwieldy and officious cacophony.

Did a new Department of Energy create better energy policy? Did a new federal Department of Education ensure that America’s school children got a better education? The answer to both questions is no. If history is any guide, the new cumbersome Department of Homeland Security is unlikely to make the U.S. homeland more secure from attacks by “lean and mean” terrorist groups and may make it less so.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


  New from Ivan Eland!
RECARVING RUSHMORE (UPDATED EDITION): Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty
Taking a distinctly new approach, Ivan Eland profiles each U.S. president from Washington to Obama on the merits of his policies and whether those strategies contributed to peace, prosperity, and liberty. This ranking system is based on how effective each president was in fulfilling his oath to uphold the Constitution.






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