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The Nation

The Homeland Security Bureaucracy Is Born

Department absorbs 22 agencies but draws criticism from contractors and entrepreneurs who are unsure of its mission.

March 02, 2003|Mark Fineman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Just 48 hours before the biggest reorganization of the U.S. government in half a century became operational Saturday, not even a CIA official could restrain himself from venting in public.

For two straight days, he and more than 100 homeland security executives -- from America's most powerful defense contractors to its most eager small entrepreneurs -- heard a parade of independent analysts and officials from America's new Department of Homeland Security identify minefields in what many see as a new, multibillion-dollar market: protecting the homeland from chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism.

Then the white-haired man, who later said he isn't permitted to give his name, took the microphone to explain just how hard it is to reach anyone at the fledgling bureaucracy. "And I work for the CIA," he said.

"How bizarre it is sitting here for two days and listening to you talk about what the Department of Homeland Security may or may not need," he declared. "What we need is for Homeland Security to tell us what they need."

His message of confusion and frustration spoke volumes about the challenges and pitfalls that lay ahead for this newborn bureaucracy -- a department that grew from 200 government employees to nearly 180,000 overnight.

As of Saturday, the new Department of Homeland Security took control of all or part of nearly two dozen federal agencies -- each with its own budget woes, bureaucracy and baggage. Some are as troubled as they are needy, suffering from underfunding, neglect, redundancy and even mismanagement.

But at the core of the dilemma facing anyone hoping to do business with the vast new agency, according to several Homeland Security officials who spoke at the conference, is the simple fact that the department doesn't know what it needs because it doesn't know what it has.

That in turn has delayed the appropriation of money by Congress -- leaving little for would-be contractors. How efficiently this new entity can protect the nation from terrorists remains to be seen.

"The first thing we're doing is looking at what we have -- what we're inheriting," said Ronald Miller, a Homeland Security senior technology advisor.

As an example -- and a priority -- he cited the department's cyber-nightmare in trying to create a computer architecture.

Most of the 22 agencies folding into the new department have their own internal computer systems, Miller said. Ultimately, the Homeland Security Department must link them all -- and tie into a new database that will be available to the public, state and local law enforcement agencies and officials with top-secret clearance through a layered security system.

That day, Miller said, is months away.

Meanwhile, the department responsible for eventually creating a database that incorporates all domestic intelligence amassed by the federal government started out by borrowing the Transportation Security Administration's Web site to publicly go online.

The new department, headed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, includes tens of thousands of federal law enforcement agents and is charged with protecting America's borders, ports, coastlines, airports and even its president.

The department controls the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its Border Patrol, the 44,000-member Coast Guard and all 70,000 new Transportation Security Administration employees who are policing more than 400 U.S. airports.

Ridge's department also took over the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government's strategic medical stockpiles, its energy preparedness office and the centers that train all U.S. law enforcement agencies except the FBI.

In reality, the change of command was as symbolic as the series of ceremonies Ridge attended last week when he received the official flags of the various agencies he's inheriting amid pomp, speeches and the music of military bands.

When all those federal workers now under his authority go to work Monday, they'll sit at the same desks, wear the same uniforms, use the same security badges and answer to many of the same bosses as they did Friday. The department is months away from consolidating the overlapping activities of its new agencies, merging the INS and Customs, changing chains of command and issuing standardized uniforms to its agents.

Last week's conference -- one of many intended to put the new department in contact with vendors and contractors -- itself clearly framed how the department's promise of tens of billions of new federal dollars has spawned a new industry in homeland security that includes the Boeings of the world as well as dozens of small-time tinkerers.

There is already a lobbyist: the Washington-based Homeland Security Industries Assn.

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