Department of Bureaucratic Security

President Bush has announced the new Department of Homeland Security.

The one thing about this whole exercise that makes me feel positive about our war on Islamist terrorists is that the White House managed to plan the reorganization of a huge portion of the federal government without anyone finding out until it was ready.

So at least the White House can keep a secret, which may come in handy when planning, say, an invasion. Unfortunately, the good news stops there.

What do we know about the Department of Homeland Security? It will be big. It will have a lot of government employees — some new hires, some transferred from existing departments. It will be a major political and budgetary entity, and it will be complicated enough to keep Congress busy all summer.

It will be a lot of things, but what it doesn't seem to be is much of a weapon against terrorism. The key to stopping terrorists is intelligence: not only the gathering of intelligence, but the analysis and use of intelligence.

The FBI and CIA did a lousy job of that where the Sept. 11 attacks were concerned. It now appears that they had the kind of information that would have tipped them off to the pending attacks — if anyone had been able to connect the dots. But the system broke down there.

Raw intelligence data didn't always make it to the analysts. When it did, it wasn't understood. When it was understood, it wasn't acted upon.

If the White House had asked for billions of dollars to analyze intelligence data, it would be onto something. But the Department of Homeland Security isn't really about analysis. The FBI and CIA — who have traditionally had trouble cooperating — will be outside the new department, which probably will simply constitute another entity with which those agencies will have trouble cooperating.

Similar problems exist across the board: anyone who thinks that shifting a few lines on an organizational chart will create better cooperation between the Coast Guard and the Immigration and Naturalization Service is, ahem, an optimist, to say the least. But what's most troubling about the Department of Homeland Security is attitude, and I think that attitude is the most important thing in our war against Islamist terrorists.

Organizations that aren't sure what to do often substitute reorganizations for more serious action. To me, that seems to be where we are in the home-front battle against terrorists. We continue to pursue half-hearted or downright stupid approaches: banning eyebrow tweezers and plastic knives on airplanes, while being afraid to give extra scrutiny to young Middle Eastern men, who are far and away the most likely to be terrorists; federalizing the same low-quality airport security screeners we had before and pretending that doing so will somehow make them do a better job; issuing color-coded alerts while not keeping track of potentially dangerous people within our borders; being willing to shoot down hijacked planes but being unwilling to arm pilots to repel hijackers.

By our actions we have shown — or, to be more accurate, by its actions the White House has shown — that it is not really serious. I think that the Department of Homeland Security is a symptom of this problem, not a solution to it.

The real key to success here is attitude, and it seems clear that the federal government doesn't have the right attitude yet. If the FBI and CIA had had the right attitude, the pre-Sept. 11 warnings might have been acted upon. But the bureaucracy was complacent and inefficient.

And why not? Had the FBI rounded up the hijackers before Sept. 11 and been unable to prove its case, heads would have rolled amid charges of prejudice against Muslims and racial profiling. But how many bureaucrats have lost their jobs because the Sept. 11 warnings were missed? None, which shows that we haven't gotten serious. Bureaucrats understand such things.

I'm also concerned about attitude on a larger scale. Wars are won by destroying the enemy, not by playing defense. Now we've got a huge, multi-multibillion-dollar government department dedicated to playing defense. (And one that, being a bureaucracy, won't ever go away, even if the war is won).

Many bureaucratic empires will be built, many budgets will be enhanced (the administration says that this reorganization won't lead to additional spending, but nobody believes that) and many meetings will be held. Will any of this do as much to protect us from terrorism as a daisy-cutter on Saddam Hussein, or the neutralization of Saudi Arabia's campaign to spread Islamic fundamentalism around the world? I doubt it.

Perhaps it will take another attack before America — and the administration — get serious. It doesn't seem likely that the new Department of Homeland Security will do much to stand in the way of that.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee and publishes InstaPundit.Com. He is co-author, with Peter W. Morgan, of The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society (The Free Press, 1997).

Respond to the Writer