Congress Can Fix DHS, but Needs to Fix Itself First

September 30, 2014

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is in desperate need of a makeover, but there are a number of roadblocks on the way. The biggest? Congress.

In the wake of 9/11, Congress created DHS with the goal of reducing unnecessary interdepartmental redundancies and improving intelligence and operational planning. The resulting melting pot of 22 agencies from multiple cabinet-level departments not only failed to improve coordination and communication, but in many cases has exacerbated the problem. Congress only compounded the issue by failing to look introspectively at how to realign committee jurisdictions. The result is oversight chaos. Congressional oversight is important, but it must be done right. Not only must Congress realign itself vis-à-vis its DHS oversight responsibilities, but legislative action must be taken to “fix” DHS, akin to how the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act achieved important reforms of the Department of Defense (DoD).

Operation Eagle Claw, the 1980 attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran, and 1983’s Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada, demonstrated the disjointed nature of U.S. military operations and coordination. The operation in Iran was one of the newly formed Delta Force’s first operations. On the surface the operation appeared to be “joint” in nature: Marines were flying Navy helicopters refueled by the Air Force and carrying Army operators on board. But the mission ended in catastrophe. The Holloway Report, the result of the U.S. military’s effort to make sense of what happened, identified a number of contributing factors to the failure, but the most glaring was the “ad hoc nature of the organization and planning.” Likewise, Grenada showed that these problems had still not been addressed, even within the realm of conventional forces. Specifically, the lack of interoperable communications among the service branches contributed to miscommunication and delays in obtaining supporting aerial and naval gunfire.

The lack of coordination and interoperability exhibited during both operations provided the impetus for the Goldwater-Nichols Act. At the macro level, the intent of the legislation was to streamline communications between the Combatant Commanders and the President, clearly assign responsibilities and to break down organizational stovepipes among the services. Prior to the Goldwater-Nichols Act, each of the services effectively operated in its own space with little joint coordination or planning. Service planners generally did not take into consideration the capabilities of sister services when developing plans, being primarily concerned about ensuring that their particular service was at the forefront of an operation.

Similarly, there is significant interagency competition among DHS components. The department does not have common doctrine for the conduct of operations, even among those components with similar operational missions. Responsibilities for specific mission sets are not clearly defined, and at the headquarters level there is nothing akin to DoD’s Joint Staff to coordinate the plans and policy of the department’s components.

DHS went from a concept to an operational department in roughly six months. During that short time, little analytical rigor was applied to understand the complexities of organizing such a large single agency from a multitude of subordinate agencies with overlapping and competing jurisdictions and dramatically different organizational cultures. Interagency rivalries persisted, hindering development of a focused departmental corporate bond and culture.

The traditional rivalry among different types of law enforcement agencies provides an example of the internal conflict within DHS. Among U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, the investigative and interdiction arms of law enforcement possess different organizational cultures and ethos. Each determines its own unique endgame and metrics. All are generally focused on the successful prosecution of arrested offenders, but radically divergent on how their operations actually develop to fruition. Whereas investigative agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement have an operational horizon of years or months, interdiction agencies such as Customs and Border Protection can execute on a much shorter timeline, often in terms of minutes or hours.

With its myriad subordinate components, each with its own “legacy” culture, along with an extremely high leadership turnover rate, it is no surprise that DHS is fraught with dysfunction and significant morale problems. Anecdotally, if asked “What federal department do you work for?” some DHS personnel will respond with “I’m legacy INS,” or “I’m legacy Treasury.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) consistently rates DHS as “high risk” resulting from the department’s failure to improve its management systems and to fully integrate the subordinate components into a cabinet-level entity with a singular purpose. Events such as Hurricane Katrina and Super-storm Sandy demonstrated the deficiencies in organization and coordination that are reminiscent of Operations Eagle Claw and Urgent Fury.

The current global threats to the United States from terrorists and nation-states require a re-look at how DHS can be reorganized to better counter these threats. Of particular concern are U.S. foreign fighters returning from Syria. This group is complex in that multiple departments could claim jurisdiction over their disposition and/or prosecution – DHS, Justice and State for openers, notwithstanding the subcomponents of DHS alone.

In order to effectively shape DHS, however, Congress must first take an introspective look at its own organization and committee jurisdiction. Concurrent with the standup of DHS, Congress established the House Committee on Homeland Security and the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. While this construct makes sense – one committee in each chamber to provide oversight and authorization – Congress failed to empower those two committees with the requisite jurisdictional authorities. Complicating matters, none of the committees that had jurisdiction over the pre-DHS “legacy” agencies were willing to relinquish any of that oversight authority to the new committees. Committee chairs are judged on their ability to expand jurisdiction, not on giving it away. So the issue became one of simple rice-bowl politics, with the end result being a mish-mash of jurisdictional oversight, without a single, clearly responsible committee in each chamber.

The Department of Defense, the largest federal department, reports to only six congressional committees: the Armed Services, Intelligence and Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate. During the 112th Congress, DHS reported to 119 committees, subcommittees, caucuses and commissions. On the House side, the engagements included 204 hearings before 17 committees, and for the Senate, 82 hearings before 17 committees. Examples of the jurisdictional overlap: the House Committee on Homeland Security and Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee have jurisdiction over the physical aspects of border security; the Judiciary committees oversee enforcement of immigration law; the House Committee on Homeland Security and Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee are responsible for transportation security, but the Transportation committees have jurisdiction over transportation safety.

Although the House Committee on Homeland Security and Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee are the authorizing bodies for DHS, neither committee can generate reforming legislation without suffering through endless referrals to the other committees claiming even piece-meal jurisdiction. The majority of these committees will never take action on the legislation because it will impact their jurisdictional status. The end result is that DHS continues to plod along with piece-meal authorizations of its components, many of which have not been authorized since the original DHS authorization in 2002.

The 9/11 Commission Report made 41 recommendations, citing that restructuring of congressional oversight for DHS was one of the most critical reforms necessary. Since the report’s issuance, all recommendations have been fully implemented or acted upon in some manner except one – congressional oversight reform. Congressional failure to honestly and earnestly review its committee jurisdiction is the greatest impediment to DHS ever becoming an effective, efficient organization. The Homeland Security committees will continue to be irrelevant in the grand scheme of national security legislation unless allowed to demonstrate legislative prowess on the order of the Armed Services committees that issue annual defense authorization bills. Unfortunately, the likelihood of either chamber realigning jurisdiction is as great as that of Congress imposing term limits upon itself as it did to the presidency. Until then, DHS will continue to suffer from Congressional application of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy that “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”


Tom Leonard is a retired Army officer and War College Graduate. He is a former Senior Policy Advisor to the Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.


Photo credit: Senate Democrats