Resistant to change? - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Resistant to change?

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Posted: Saturday, December 13, 2008 6:01 pm | Updated: 9:13 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Talk about tall orders. When he chose Janet Napolitano to head the Department of Homeland Security, President-elect Barack Obama said, "She will be a leader who can reform a sprawling department while safeguarding our homeland." Oh, really?

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure the Arizona governor is a highly capable and dedicated public servant, but it seems unrealistic to expect anyone to revamp the behemoth that is Homeland Security while protecting the country from the growing threat of terrorism.

It's likely that Homeland Security will test Obama's urge to change, reform and overhaul government against the realities of the federal bureaucracy.

Created five years ago by combining 22 federal agencies, Homeland Security is a giant nobody loves, not even its 216,000 employees. The department routinely has the worst morale in the federal government - a shame since the work is so vital.

Among its parts: the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Coast Guard. Its gargantuan mission ranges from preventing terrorist attacks and responding to disasters to policing the borders and deporting illegal immigrants.

Despite the department's problems, current Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says rushing reform is a bad idea.

"There's a presumption in my mind against any massive changes," Chertoff told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Dec. 3. "At a minimum, you ought to take a couple of years and make sure you're using existing structures as well as you can."

Obama and Napolitano face pressure to make changes immediately. But Chertoff, who gave up a lifetime appointment as a federal appeals court judge to lead Homeland Security, warned that reorganizing is a recipe for federal inaction.

"Each time you reorganize, you freeze everything. People become uncertain what their future is. All actual, substantive work becomes impeded, and then you lose time," he said.

And, time - as the attacks in Mumbai and the recent report on biological and nuclear threats reminded everybody - is not on our side.

"We know that our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing," said the report by the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. It predicted that without U.S. government leadership, a biological or nuclear terrorist attack will occur somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.

The blue-ribbon panel, which was formed by Congress, singled out Pakistan as a potential "unwitting source of a terrorist attack on the United States."

The sobering reality, the report said, is that "the risks are growing faster than our multi-layered defenses."

This is not a news flash. But many will find the commission a more reliable source than the Bush administration, which has been criticized for "crying wolf."

So, as Obama sets his priorities, homeland security necessarily will be near or at the top. The sick economy dominates the news, but, if people aren't safe and secure in their daily lives, the queasy stock market hardly matters.

What Homeland Security lacks is credibility. Its earnest advice in 2003 that Americans stock duct tape and plastic sheeting so they could shelter in place during a terrorist attack was ridiculed, and the color-coded threat levels never really made sense. What should we do differently when the threat level is Orange that we don't do when it's Yellow?

The change the new administration could start on is restoring the people's faith in the government. Obama is likely to make high-profile appointments on specific areas of concern, such as WMD and cyber security. These czars would report directly to him, bypassing the Department of Homeland Security.

Also under review is whether to remove FEMA from the department.

For what it's worth, Chertoff doesn't think much of those ideas either. What, he asks, would more czars add? And he said that having the agency that responds to disasters as part of the larger prevention effort makes sense.

The WMD commission recommended that the government do more to make information available that helps people understand the terrorist threats, what specifically they can do to help prevent them and steps they can take if an attack occurs. That could go far toward creating real Homeland Security.

Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief of Media General News Service.

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