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Homeland security projects can also avoid public scrutiny under a procurement category known as "OTA," or "Other Transaction Authority," which critics say has been used to skirt the regulatory process. This designation, which Congress initially granted the Pentagon for "advanced research," has been used for projects that "generally are not subject to federal laws and regulations applicable to procurement contracts," according to a GAO report in 2002.
"A lot of Defense Department programs need to be classified and provide limited knowledge. But classifying emergency preparedness? That's bull," one congressional official said. "There is no independent knowledge to make the right policy decisions."
Random glitches are inevitable in the creation of a governmental behemoth that merges 22 federal agencies and 180,000 employees. But critics say problems within the Department of Homeland Security go well beyond internal integration, confounding the local officials and the technology companies expected to buy and sell equipment that is critical to national defense.
"Information sharing, or the lack of it, has been a big stumbling block," said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer of Federal Sources Inc. (FSI), a consulting firm that specializes in government contracts. "It could be something as fundamental as land radio systems that can't talk to each other or, on the grander scale, the ability to exchange pieces of information that could help solve a crisis."
Communication problems persist even within the Department of Homeland Security itself, in no small part because of its labyrinthine structure.
Case in point: The department's top cybersecurity official is two levels removed from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, a situation believed to have been responsible for the October resignation of Amit Yoran, who held the post over the past year. Lawmakers are trying to correct this organizational flaw with two House bills. Elsewhere in the agency, the chief information officer is not a member of the senior management team and does not have departmentwide authority over technology assets and programs.
"In some instances, the directorates do not involve or apprise the DHS CIO of their individual IT projects or initiatives," according to a July report by the department's own Office of Inspector General. That could lead to a situation where directorates put their staff to work on programs that directly contradict or interfere with initiatives laid down by the Department of Homeland Security's CIO, the report noted.
Intramural conflicts arise for reasons beyond organization as well, such as the kind of internal politics and competition that characterize any enterprise inside the Washington Beltway. Federal sources say even Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, charged with overseeing the Department of Homeland Security's operations, was initially pressured to limit the criticism in his office's reports.
"There are elements of Justice not happy working with FEMA guys, bioterror types conflicting with Health and Human Services. Tension is always there," one government official said. "Prosecutors have a very different perspective from response guys, who just want to help people, not preserve crime scenes. Then you have prevention guys who are very different from the responders. Even within the same department, such as immigration, there are differences between the service culture and enforcement side."
Perhaps for reasons such as this, the American public appears cynical about the effectiveness of government programs on homeland security in a nationwide survey conducted by CNET News.com and Harris Interactive. The poll, which surveyed more than 1,000 people in August, showed wide support for new technologies, such as eye and hand scanners. However, the survey found little faith in the government's ability to use the tools already at its disposal.
Nearly 53 percent of the respondents said the government was not doing enough to use technology to improve security, according to the CNET News.com-Harris Interactive Poll. A similar majority said they thought the government's technology initiatives to date either were having no effect or had made things less secure. About 45 percent said they believed that the government's technology initiatives on the security front were working.
"Money wasted on political projects means more effective uses are not being met," said Pete Sepp, vice president of communications at the National Taxpayers Union. "The political establishments of both parties agreed from the outset that virtually any effort to hold people accountable amounted to not worrying about national security."
Among those who should be called on to contribute, others say, are companies. As the threat of terrorism increasingly becomes a fact of life, domestic security can be viewed legitimately as a cost of doing business, along with such factors as worker safety and product liability.
James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, points to Operation Safe Commerce--the Transportation Security Administration's program to inspect cargo shipments--as a "classic waste of money" on a function that should be left to the businesses concerned. "Turn it over to the industry--make them figure out the best way to do it," he urged.
Others caution against overreliance on the private sector, saying that only the federal government can adequately formulate industrywide standards.
"One reason that governments promulgate building codes, for example, is that it would be too difficult for each individual to evaluate a building's structural soundness before (deciding) to enter it," according to a report from The Brookings Institution's Project on Homeland Security. "Since it would also be difficult for the individual to evaluate how well the building's air intake could filter out potential bioterrorist attacks, the same logic could suggest that the government should set minimum antiterrorism standards for buildings."
Moreover, the corporate world's track record on compliance with safety regulations in general is less than stellar. In cases where the government deems the private sector to be responsible for security measures, the institute recommends that companies be required to carry insurance and that the government provide subsidies for counterterrorism measures and other legislated incentives for industries to protect themselves.
Nevertheless, such regulatory authority raises a fundamental question: Who will supervise the supervisors?
At the very least, the Senate and House should each create a permanent special committee to handle homeland security, as it has done to address intelligence oversight, simply to centralize knowledge and authority. From January to July of this year, The Heritage Foundation found, homeland security officials testified in 126 hearings--the equivalent of 1.5 appearances for every day of the congressional session.
"The government wants to make sure they're spending enough, and in that process, you can be sure that there's money that's going to be wasted," said former Rep. Rick White, a former Republican congressman who is now chief executive of the bipartisan lobby TechNet and a member of the Markle Foundation's task force on digital security. "When Congress is your overseer, you're already in trouble. Congress needs an overseer itself."