The Homeland Security Bureaucracy Is Born

Times Staff Writer

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.

"The bottom line is, it's a lot of money, and the administration is figuring out a way to spend this money, and that's where you come in," said Bruce Aitken, the association's president, in opening last week's conference, which was sponsored by Defense Week magazine.

The $37 billion authorized for the agencies now forming the Homeland Security Department in fiscal year 2003, Aitken said, is a sevenfold increase over pre-Sept. 11, nonmilitary spending on the nation's security. And billions of more dollars are due to be spent at the state level.

But it has become clear that the money isn't there yet, in part because the department doesn't yet know its own needs. Most of the new money hasn't been appropriated, and that has fed into an increasingly bitter debate between the Bush administration and Congress -- and Democrats and Republicans -- over blame for shortchanging the nation's security.

"We should recognize the straitjacket of reality," retired Navy Vice Adm. Jerry O. Tuttle told the conference. Tuttle, who runs a private consulting firm, said the new department is "inheriting a mountain of requirements with the budget of a molehill."

Aitken said: "Homeland security was just talk. And it still is.... Many companies have approached us and said they can't get in the front door, the money isn't there yet. We are, in my opinion, at least a year away -- maybe two to three years away."

Most of the money being spent in the name of homeland security has been committed to such major defense contractors as Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and Northrup Grumman. And much of what has been labeled homeland-security dollars is, in fact, included in funding programs begun long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- some unrelated to protecting the homeland.

The Coast Guard, for example, will receive about $500 million a year for the next 30 years in "homeland security" funds that will help finance a program dubbed Deepwater to replace aging cutters, aircraft and other assets. The money will also pay for other Coast Guard missions like tracking icebergs and stopping drug runners and migrant smugglers.

The new department is also inheriting several billion dollars worth of contracts already let by the new Transportation Safety Administration -- ballooning commitments that were hastily awarded with little oversight during last year's congressionally ordered rush to safeguard America's airports. An ongoing audit of those contracts shows that tens of millions of dollars may have been squandered, according to the Transportation Department's inspector general and congressional sources.

Scott Lilly, Democratic staff director at the House Appropriations Committee, warned the contractors' conference that those issues at the TSA may well continue unless Ridge quickly creates a new corporate culture within its ranks -- something President Bush promised in a speech Friday to the new department.

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