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Homeland Security operating without a real home

A planned $3.4-billion headquarters project on the site of a former asylum is stalled in Congress. In the meantime, the department's 22 agencies are scattered in more than 35 offices around Washington.

September 24, 2011|By Brian Bennett, Washington Bureau
  • The abandoned main building of St. Elizabeths Hospital is slated to be the future headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security.
The abandoned main building of St. Elizabeths Hospital is slated to be the… (Brian Bennett, For The Times )

Reporting from Washington — Five miles southeast of the gleaming Capitol dome, on a scenic bluff overlooking the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, the future office of the secretary of Homeland Security sits boarded up and abandoned.

Four years ago, U.S. officials announced plans to renovate the dilapidated, castle-like structure —opened in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane — to anchor Washington's largest construction project since the Pentagon was built 70 years ago.

The goal was to unite on a single campus the 22 agencies that were stitched together to form the Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But the $3.4-billion headquarters project stalled as Congress tried to cut the federal deficit. Lawmakers debated this month whether the nation could afford such a massive home-improvement project, and the House has voted to eliminate the funding in next year's budget.

As a result, Homeland Security employees remain scattered through more than 35 offices around Washington. Janet Napolitano, their boss, works from a former Navy radar facility that has all the comforts of a barracks. Plus, in traffic, she's a good 40 minutes from the White House.

"They need to get out of there as soon as possible," said Tom Ridge, who took over the former Navy compound in early 2003 after he was named the first Homeland Security chief.

In the early rush to get settled, Ridge recalls, one of his assistant secretaries emptied out a broom closet and stuck a desk in it.

"It's hardly anything anyone can call palatial," he growled.

Napolitano's future office, assuming it gets built, has its own charms.

According to renovation plans, she would work by a Gothic-style bay window in the second floor office long used by the director of the nation's first major federally run psychiatric institution, which was founded by Congress in 1852.

It subsequently had a long and storied history.

During the Civil War, when the asylum was used as a Union Army hospital, wounded soldiers began using the euphemism St. Elizabeths, the Colonial-era name for the tract of land. The name stuck and was formally changed in 1916.

The American-born poet Ezra Pound was confined at the facility from 1946 to 1958 after he was deemed unfit to stand trial on charges of treason for making hundreds of pro-fascist and pro-Nazi radio broadcasts from Italy during World War II. Pound lived two doors down from the superintendent's office, and made the schedule for the tennis courts.

Other famous patients included Richard Lawrence, who tried to shoot President Andrew Jackson in 1835, Charles J. Guiteau, who shot and killed President James Garfield in 1881, and John Hinckley Jr., who shot and wounded President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

At its height, the hospital held more than 8,000 patients, though the caseload fell sharply in recent decades as care for the mentally ill shifted to community-based treatment. A new hospital, opened last year by the District of Columbia, now treats a few hundred patients on the eastern edge of the complex.

The Homeland Security complex is planned for what's called the western campus. Already, downhill from the castle-like main building, five cranes are setting support beams for a $350-million headquarters for the U.S. Coast Guard. The opening is scheduled for 2013.

But the guardsmen may be lonely. As of Sept. 30, no funding will be available to provide new offices for Homeland Security, or any of its component parts, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or the Transportation Security Administration.

Under the original plans, all were scheduled to move to the campus by 2016.

Proponents argue that the high cost of construction will be partially offset by savings. According to projections by the Government Services Administration, the department could save $500 million in rent and other costs over the next three decades if it consolidates its offices.

At a hearing Friday before the House subcommittee on Coast Guard and maritime transportation, Donald Bathurst, chief administrative officer for the Homeland Security Department, offered cautious optimism that the complex would be built — someday.

"We will find a way to keep this project moving forward," he said. "However, we will not be able to keep to the schedule."

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) appealed to his colleagues to back the consolidation. "Homeland Security is simply too important for the Congress to allow this project to drift off course to an uncertain future," he said.

Homeland Security spending hasn't always inspired confidence, however.

A five-year effort to build a "virtual wall" of cameras, radar and sensors along the Southwest border proved a disaster. After spending $1 billion on just 53 miles in Arizona, officials abandoned the project in January and said the border would be guarded with less expensive measures.

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