DHS management failures threaten terrorism prevention, experts warn

Friday - 7/13/2012, 3:36pm EDT

Ruben Gomez, reporter, Federal News Radio

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This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. July 13 to include comments from DHS officials.

Management problems at the Homeland Security Department threaten to undermine efforts to prevent terrorism in the U.S., lawmakers and experts with close knowledge of the department's operations said Thursday.

The department has played a key role in stopping all large-scale attacks since 9/11, but it still faces significant integration challenges, said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) at a Thursday hearing by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

She said DHS' continued presence — since its creation — on the Government Accountability Office's High Risk List as evidence.

"What people don't often realize is the high risk designation refers not to just being at risk for waste, fraud and abuse, it is at risk for program failure," she said.

DHS opened its doors in 2003, consolidating responsibilities from 22 other departments and agencies. The goal of Congress in creating DHS was to eliminate stovepipes that made it difficult for agencies to share information and resources aimed at preventing terrorism.

But nine years later, DHS has failed to adequately support key mission areas, said former department Inspector General Richard Skinner.

"When we stood up, the management support functions were shortchanged," he told the committee. "We brought over all of the operational aspects of the 22 different agencies, but we did not bring the management support functions to support those operations. And as a result, we've been digging ourselves out of a hole ever since."

Skinner said DHS is lagging especially in the areas of financial management, acquisition management, IT management and grants management-most of which GAO has included on its high risk list.

The department also has missed the mark in creating unified efforts among its components, said former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen.

"There have been several attempts to establish a robust planning and execution system that takes place through the National Operations Center on behalf of the [DHS] secretary," Allen said. "One of the problems is [it] was kind of a 'come as you are department,' and a lot of people stayed at the facilities where they're at in Washington. And there was a balkanization of the facilities."

Skinner said DHS leaders should increase emphasis on the department's shared mission.

"They're going to have to start working better together," he said. "They're going to have to give up some of their turf, so to speak."

DHS officials told Federal News Radio they are making progress.

"In January 2011, the under secretary for management submitted to GAO a comprehensive strategy to integrate the management functions of the department," said deputy press secretary Marsha Catron. "Since the initial strategy, the under secretary for management has submitted numerous updates on progress of the department's management integration efforts to GAO, most recently on June 15, 2012. Each update shows the significant progress DHS has made and the number of GAO outcomes that are scored as 'Fully' or 'Mostly' addressed continues to rise."

But not all of DHS' shortcomings rest on the shoulders of its leadership, said former Rep. Jane Harman, who said Congress may have been too ambitious when it drafted the bill that created the department.

"The department can't do everything equally well," she said. "And I would suggest that some of the functions should be narrowed — including the intelligence function. I think there is a huge role to collect information from all the agencies inside the department and fuse that information together. But I don't think the intelligence function at homeland needs to compete with the CIA or compete with [National Counterterrorism Center]."

In addition, the number of Congressional committees DHS answers to complicate its management challenges, said Harman, who worked on the House Homeland Security Committee. By some estimates, DHS answers to 108 committees and subcommittees.

As a result, many current and former officials say the department spends too much time testifying instead of protecting the country.

"Congress has been a very disappointing player in this process," Harman said. "And the Homeland jurisdiction here, but more significant in the House, is anemic."

A request to DHS for a comment on the management criticisms was not immediately returned.

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