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Man-Made Disaster

Six years on, the Department of Homeland Security is still a catastrophe.

Michael Chertoff needs an office. When I interviewed the secretary of Homeland Security this summer, we met in a pair of temporary locations between which he shuttles--first in the decaying Nebraska Avenue Complex of the naval station at Ward Circle (a center for signal analysis during World War II) and later in an unmarked and unfurnished office in the nondescript headquarters of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Ronald Reagan building, near the White House. Chertoff hasn't settled into an office partly because the six-year-old Department of Homeland Security (DHS) still has no permanent, consolidated headquarters. Instead, the unwieldy amalgam of 22 separate federal agencies operates out of 70 buildings at 40 different locations in the Washington area. And the lack of a real home is just the beginning of the department's bureaucratic problems. The most recent survey by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management on the job satisfaction of federal employees in 36 agencies ranked Homeland Security last or near last in every category. Meanwhile, officials from the Pentagon who have tried to do business with DHS complained to me of organizational chaos at the department. Homeland Security employees, they said, are often unaware of overlapping initiatives championed by their colleagues, and even by Chertoff himself.

This can't have been what Democrats and Republicans had in mind when they celebrated the creation of the department in November 2002--arguably the last moment of bipartisan cooperation that Washington would see for six years. Although hastily thrown together, DHS was hailed by most of official Washington as a necessary response to the extreme vulnerabilities exposed by the September 11 attacks. Today, that bipartisan consensus remains largely intact. In fact, as Barack Obama prepares to take office, some Democrats want to increase the department's budget, which is now over $40 billion per year. "I do think more money has to be spent, order of magnitude twenty to twenty-five percent more," I was told in July by James Steinberg, who emphasized that he was not speaking for the Obama campaign. (He is now expected to become deputy secretary of state. ) "I don't think Secretary Chertoff has fought hard enough within the administration for his share of resources," P.J. Crowley, a homeland security expert at the Center for American Progress, told me in June. "If we continue to suggest we are at war, I wonder if DHS really is on a war-time footing." More recently, the nomination of the charismatic Janet Napolitano to head the department suggests that Obama himself is committed to a strong DHS. In announcing her nomination, Obama said, "She understands the need for a Department of Homeland Security that has the capacity to help prevent terrorist attacks and respond to catastrophe be it man-made or natural." It may still be years away from having a permanent headquarters, but the Department of Homeland Security, apparently, is here to stay.

Should that be cause for celebration or concern? This summer, I talked to security experts on both sides of the political spectrum, and had several conversations with Chertoff, in an effort to answer the following question: Is DHS achieving its mission of making us safer? My reluctant conclusion is that, although Chertoff has performed impressively in an impossible job, the department is hard to justify with any rational analysis of costs and benefits. On the contrary, it's arguably one of the most expensive marketing ventures in political history--an enterprise that seeks to make us feel safer instead of actually making us safer. The best argument for DHS is that the illusion of safety may itself provide tangible psychological and economic benefits: If people feel less afraid, they may be more likely to fly on planes. But even if conceived on these terms--as a more-than-$40-billion-dollar-a-year pacifier--the department is hard to defend, since there's no good evidence that it has, in fact, calmed Americans down rather than making us more nervous.

The only way of calming people down is political leadership that puts the terrorist threat in perspective. But, despite efforts by Chertoff to avoid the color-coded hysteria that defined the department in its early days, DHS officials inevitably feel pressure to exaggerate the terrorist threat--scaremongering that creates further public demand for promises of security that can't be fulfilled. And so the very existence of DHS creates a chain reaction of self-justifying insecurity. For this reason, Republicans (who used to be the stiff-upper-lip party of limited government) and Democrats (who don't trust the government to run the war in Iraq and are generally cautious about spending too much on defense) are willing to sink billions into an institutional money pit that has more to do with symbols than substance. Both parties seem incapable of acknowledging an uncomfortable but increasingly obvious truth: that the Department of Homeland Security was a bureaucratic and philosophical mistake.

To understand how DHS was hobbled from the beginning, it may be helpful to recall the partisan gymnastics surrounding its creation. After September 11, President Bush appointed Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge to head a new Office of Homeland Security in the White House. When Joe Lieberman first proposed setting up a cabinet-level homeland security department in October 2001, White House conservatives balked at the prospect of a vast new federal bureaucracy. But, as Lieberman's bill began to gain momentum, the White House decided it couldn't let the GOP be outflanked by Democrats in appearing tough on terror. In April 2002, after months of Republican senators fighting against Lieberman's bill, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card convened a secret working group to decide which federal agencies to merge into a homeland security department that would be created on Bush's terms. The mid-level White House staffers who were responsible for designing the new department met regularly with Card, Condoleezza Rice, and Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby. Those staffers later told The Washington Post about the rushed and almost random character of much of their deliberation: The Immigration and Naturalization Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency were in, but, because of internal politics, the FBI was out. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was in because a White House security expert, Richard Falkenrath, called a friend and asked which of the Department of Energy's three research labs to include.

The White House announced the plan on June 6, 2002, the same day Coleen Rowley--a whistle-blower who had accused FBI leadership of ignoring warnings before September 11 about potential terrorists taking flying lessons--testified on the Hill. The Rowley story suggested the Bush administration had all the information it needed to prevent the attacks but had failed to connect the dots. According to Representative Jane Harman, the former ranking member on the House intelligence committee, the announcement may have been timed to move the Rowley story "below the fold" and out of the headlines. "I think they rushed this," Harman told me. "I don't ever think Bush was excited about this department" but he decided it was "politically expedient."

In addition to facing the bureaucratic challenge of merging 22 federal agencies into a single organization, the department was hampered by Congress's refusal to reorganize its oversight process: As a result, DHS at one point had to report to no fewer than 88 congressional oversight committees, a byzantine challenge that wasted the time of the department's leadership.

Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security, took over on January 24, 2003. From the beginning, he was criticized for ineffectiveness, and, on his retirement, a terrorism expert told The New York Times that Ridge "seemed more interested in grabbing headlines" than executing an effective terrorism-prevention strategy. (Ridge did not respond to an interview request.) He administered the widely ridiculed color-coded alerts, which were raised to "orange" six times on his watch, and he was assailed by the DHS inspector general, Clark Ervin, for showy but ineffective transportation security measures. "I was issuing one critical report after another until I lost White House support," Ervin, now director of the homeland security program at the Aspen Institute, told me. Ridge resigned after Bush's reelection. In January 2005, Bush nominated Michael Chertoff to replace him.

From the start, Chertoff--a balding man with the razor-thin build of a dedicated runner (he has been quoted in Runner's World)--seemed to understand that his department's ambitious mission had to be defined more precisely. DHS's official charge is to "prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the Nation." But trying to prevent the next attack by guessing where it might occur is usually an exercise in futility. If one target is protected, an agile terrorist can always switch to another one; and there are, at least in theory, an infinite number of targets to protect. Moreover, even if this game of haphazard prevention sometimes succeeds, there is bound to be a lot of guesswork involved and therefore a lot of wasted effort. This makes preventing terrorist attacks an extremely expensive proposition--and one that can be difficult to justify on a cost-benefit basis.

Chertoff grasps all of this. (That is one of the reasons he has won bipartisan respect. "He has a quiet intelligence, a very calm demeanor, he's nonpartisan and non-polarizing ... and his instinct is to solve problems, not to score points," says Harman, whose relationship with Chertoff is so amicable that they've gone jogging together.) As Chertoff told me, "You can't eliminate the risk, so you manage the risk." And so he tried to handle public expectations about security with a thoughtfully moderate approach that he called "somewhere between complacency and hysteria." He sought to focus federal efforts on preventing attacks (such as nuclear terrorism) that would strike a significant blow against our economic system, while insisting that smaller events (such as lone bombers on buses) couldn't be prevented and weren't primarily a federal concern.

And yet, even as Chertoff conceded that there was only so much government could do in the realm of prevention, the department continued to spend lavishly on questionable prevention measures. More than one-third of homeland security spending in 2006 was devoted to protecting what DHS calls "critical infrastructure and key assets." That year, DHS asked Congress for more than $2 billion to finance state and local homeland security grants, some of which were devoted to installing surveillance cameras. The cameras were sold to the public as a way of preventing crime. But a comprehensive survey of studies published by the Home Office in Britain--which has more security cameras than any other European nation--found that cameras have "no effect" on violent crime in the United States or the United Kingdom. When I asked Chertoff about the cameras, he conceded something few other officials have been willing to admit: that they don't deter terrorist attacks. "The cameras don't prevent," he told me. "But they allow you to respond and capture. And that's maybe not the best thing, but it's maybe the second-best thing." Even as a tool of investigation, however, it's not clear cameras are worth the cost. The London subway bombers, for example, were caught after they showed up on camera, but they probably would have been caught even if they hadn't been videoed: Intelligence work, rather than the cameras, led to their capture. "The question isn't whether the cameras are useful; the question is whether they're essential--or would it be better to spend that money on the policeman on the beat?" says security expert Bruce Schneier.

Schneier argues that few of the high-profile items DHS has funded can survive a cost-benefit analysis. Sky marshals cost hundreds of millions of dollars per year but have added little to the sensible security measure of reinforcing cockpit doors; instead, sky marshals killed a mentally ill, unarmed passenger at a Florida airport in 2005. The Real ID Act--which Chertoff championed and which requires state driver's licenses and ID cards to conform to a common standard defined by DHS--might allow terrorists without a criminal background to obtain a trusted credential while encouraging security officers to let down their guard. And screening cargo at ports for radioactivity hasn't detected a single nuclear bomb, but it has generated 500 false alarms per day at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports. John Mueller--a political scientist and author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them--has compared federal homeland security expenditures since September 11 with the expected lives saved as a result of the increased spending and concluded that the annual cost ranged from $64 million to $600 million per life saved. By contrast, the federal government's standard regulatory goal for cost-effective prevention measures is $1 to $10 million per life saved.

Chertoff insists that at least some of the department's focus on prevention of high-impact terrorism has paid off. When I asked him whether DHS deserved credit for the fact that we haven't been attacked since September 11, he reeled off a list of half a dozen or so plots that have been blocked during that time, most notably the plot in August 2006 to use liquid explosives to blow up planes flying from London to the United States.

The 2006 airline-bombing plot, however, doesn't seem like a convincing testament to the success of the department. Last September, after a five-month trial, a British jury refused to find any of the eight bombing suspects guilty of conspiring to target transatlantic planes. (Three defendants were found guilty on conspiracy to murder charges.) One reason the charges failed to persuade a jury, according to press reports, is that British and American officials disagreed about when to arrest the suspects, with the British arguing unsuccessfully that an attack wasn't imminent. Moreover, even if the episode is considered a success for the U.S. government, it's not clear that the Department of Homeland Security deserves most of the credit: It was surveillance by British and American intelligence and law enforcement officials--not the increased security at airports overseen by DHS--that led to the arrests and halted the plot.

The department is hardly the only arm of the federal government to succumb to a prevention-at-all-costs mentality. In fact, Chertoff and DHS deserve credit for trying at times to resist that mindset. In 2007, for example, Congress mandated that, by 2012, all containers bound for the United States must first be scanned for radiation in foreign ports. Chertoff convincingly criticized this requirement as an example of the tendency to "govern by anecdote"--to allow compelling narratives to drive decision-making, as opposed to choosing policies that achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. "My belief is that the genesis of this went back to the 2004 campaign for president, when someone must have told John Kerry that only four percent of containers were being inspected, and four percent sounds like a low number, so that became an easy target," Chertoff told me. We now scan 100 percent of the cargo coming into the country in U.S. ports, but Chertoff argues that it makes little sense to insist on radiation scanning in foreign ports like England, where terrorists are unlikely to build nuclear bombs to be shipped to the United States. This year, Chertoff implemented an initiative to expand overseas scanning on the trade routes with the highest security threats; but, despite his more targeted alternative, the cumbersome congressional mandate remains in place.

If prevention measures like cameras and 100 percent port screening are largely a waste, why is there so much pressure to sink money into them? The answer, as Chertoff understands, is human psychology. When I asked him whether any books or scholars had influenced his thinking about how to measure success in the war on terrorism, he cited Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics, by the political scientists Dominic D.P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney, published in 2006. Johnson and Tierney note that the Tet offensive, considered by historians an objective victory for U.S. troops, is widely perceived to be a loss because expectations for the United States were so much greater than for North Vietnam. For Chertoff, examples like this suggest that government officials should lower expectations about how much security the public can reasonably expect.

Nevertheless, I was surprised that Chertoff cited Failing to Win, since one implication of the book is that the Department of Homeland Security should never have been created. Johnson and Tierney argue that people wildly overestimate the risk of being threatened by terrorism. One reason British citizens perceived the evacuation of 340,000 troops at Dunkirk as a victory rather than what it was--a crushing defeat--was because of memorable images of a flotilla of plucky civilian volunteers sailing small vessels from England to rescue the troops. (In fact, many of them were evacuated on warships.) The same elements of psychology lead people to exaggerate the likelihood of terrorist attacks: Images of terrifying but highly unusual catastrophes on television--such as the World Trade Center collapsing--are far more memorable than images of more mundane and more prevalent threats, like dying in car crashes. Psychologists call this the "availability heuristic," in which people estimate the probability of something occurring based on how easy it is to bring examples of the event to mind.

As a result of this psychological bias, large numbers of Americans have overestimated the probability of future terrorist strikes: In a poll conducted a few weeks after September 11, respondents saw a 20 percent chance that they would be personally harmed in a terrorist attack within the next year and nearly a 50 percent chance that the average American would be harmed. Those alarmist predictions, thankfully, proved to be wrong; in fact, since September 11, international terrorism has killed only a few hundred people per year around the globe, as John Mueller points out in Overblown. At the current rates, Mueller argues, the lifetime probability of any resident of the globe being killed by terrorism is just one in 80,000.

This public anxiety is the central reason for both the creation of DHS and its subsequent emphasis on showy prevention measures, which Schneier calls a form of "security theater." But that raises a question: Even if DHS doesn't actually make us safer, could its existence still be justified if reducing the public's fears leads to tangible economic benefits? "If the public's response is based on irrational, emotional fears, it may be reasonable for the government to do things that make us feel better, even if those don't make us safer in a rational sense, because if they feel better, people will fly on planes and behave in a way that's good for the economy," Tierney told me. But the psychological impact of DHS still has to be subject to cost-benefit analysis: On balance, is the government actually calming people rather than making them more nervous? Tierney argues convincingly that the same public fears that encourage government officials to spend money on flashy preventive measures also encourage them to exaggerate the terrorist threat. "It's very difficult for a government official to come out and say anything like, 'Let's put this threat in perspective,'" he told me. "If they were to do so, and there isn't a terrorist attack, they get no credit; and, if there is, that's the end of their career." Of course, no government official feels this pressure more acutely than the head of homeland security. And so, even as DHS seeks to tamp down public fears with expensive and often wasteful preventive measures, it may also be encouraging those fears--which, in turn, creates ever more public demand for spending on prevention.

Michael Chertoff's public comments about terrorism embody this dilemma: Despite his laudable efforts to speak soberly and responsibly about terrorism--and to argue that there are many kinds of attacks we simply can't prevent--the incentives associated with his job have led him at times to increase, rather than diminish, public anxiety. Last March he declared that, "if we don't recognize the struggle we are in as a significant existential struggle, then it is going to be very hard to maintain the focus." If nuclear attacks aren't likely and smaller events aren't existential threats, I asked, why did he say the war on terrorism is a "significant existential struggle"? "To me, existential is a threat that shakes the core of a society's confidence and causes a significant and long-lasting line of damage to the country," he replied. But it would take a series of weekly Virginia Tech-style shootings or London-style subway bombings to shake the core of American confidence; and Al Qaeda hasn't come close to mustering that frequency of low-level attacks in any Western democracy since September 11. "Terrorism kills a certain number of people, and so do forest fires," Mueller told me. "If terrorism is merely killing certain numbers of people, then it's not an existential threat, and money is better spent on smoke alarms or forcing people to wear seat belts instead of chasing terrorists."

 of course, and the federal government has an important role to play in addressing it. But the focus on security theater at DHS may be distracting the federal government from the two categories of things it can do well: intelligence--that is, investigation of specific threats before strikes occur--and responding to disasters and attacks after they have happened. "The place where we can get the most leverage for our terrorism dollars is at the beginning, working with overseas police to roll up terrorist financing through effective intelligence, and at the end, with emergency response and disaster relief," says Schneier. "The stuff in the middle that requires us to guess the plot correctly really is a waste of money."

According to policing scholar Dennis Kenney of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the prevention technologies DHS likes to fund have never been effective in revealing plots before they are hatched and tend to lead to information overload. Instead, Kenney says, "the best police department doesn't have the best technologies; it has good community relations with citizens who want to tell them what's going on." Kenney notes that the New York police uncovered a post-September 11 subway bombing plot because of a tip and arrested the suspects when they arrived at the station. During the Clinton administration, the Justice Department prevented abortion clinic bombings by winning the trust of pro-lifers, who then turned over their members at the radical fringe. And Kenney notes that the Colombian police, in one of the most striking terrorism successes of the past few years, have learned the same lesson: "Fifteen years ago, the military had no way of knowing where to strike; now they have information coming to the Colombian police from the community about where the farc terrorists and narco-terrorists are, because the police have built community trust." In other words, it's rigorous police work--not unwieldy prevention measures designed to detect every possible attack--that probably represents our best hope for stopping terrorists before they strike.

In the other realm where the federal government can play a constructive role--reacting effectively after a disaster has taken place--DHS failed its biggest test so far. Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans six-and-a-half months after Chertoff took office, and the ineptitude of the department's response had a severe human cost. The little noticed bipartisan report on Katrina by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs found that "Chertoff himself should have been more engaged in preparations over the weekend before landfall" and "his performance in the nation's worst domestic disaster fell short of reasonable expectations." A day after landfall, "DHS officials were still struggling to determine the 'ground truth' about the extent of the flooding despite the many reports it had received about the catastrophe," while "DHS leaders did not become fully engaged in recovery efforts" until three days after the hurricane struck. The report details failure to heed repeated warnings, poor advance planning, broken lines of communication between DHS and the military as well as between state and federal officials, pointless turf wars between DHS and the Justice Department, and incompetence at every level. But the overwhelming conclusion of the document is that the response represented a failure of political leadership. When I asked Chertoff about this, he conceded that, before Katrina, he underestimated the public leadership aspects of his job.

The failures surrounding Katrina suggest that reacting effectively to disaster involves more than coordinating emergency response; it means preparing society to cope, practically and psychologically, with the disasters that are an inevitable part of life. On the practical side, Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations believes we need to do a better job of supporting first-responders. Republicans, he argues, have allowed a rigid states' rights ideology to create an artificial distinction between federal and state responses to natural disasters and small-scale acts of terrorism--denying local cops and firefighters the resources and support they need. As for the psychological side: Instead of a security mindset, which assumes we're either safe or not, Flynn's buzzword is resilience--the idea that you can't prevent all hazards but can organize communities to recover quickly once inevitable hazards occur. "The more resilient we become as a society, the less consequential acts of terrorism become, and that requires acting in ways DHS hasn't been acting," Flynn told me. "One is being far more open with the American people about vulnerabilities, and another is empowering us about how we address the vulnerabilities so we don't have an unbounded sense of fear."

In that sense, perhaps Janet Napolitano's best qualification for the problematic job she will soon inherit is her background as an effective and popular governor. After all, the only way to make the public more resilient is through political leadership. Before World War II, people understood that life was fraught with risk, and presidents like Lincoln and Roosevelt could challenge the public to be brave in the face of uncertainty and danger. Today, by contrast, we have come to believe that life is risk-free and that, if something bad happens, there must be a government official to blame. The Department of Homeland Security--with its doomed quest to give Americans the illusion of total security--is the ultimate monument to our anxious age. The biggest contribution Barack Obama could make in the realm of homeland security has nothing to do with port screening or security cameras or federal budgets. Perhaps our new president instead can lead us to rediscover the sense of self-reliance that we long ago forgot how to find within ourselves.

Jeffrey Rosen is the legal affairs editor for The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the December 24, 2008, issue of the magazine.