Value of Department of Homeland Security Debated

A little longer than six months into its operations, analysts are still debating whether a Department of Homeland Security (search) is necessary and if the agency is doing what it was created to do.

“Our job is to keep the head down, plow ahead, make progress everyday and understand some of the criticisms might be legit,” said Secretary Tom Ridge in a recent interview. “But by and large, I think we’ve made extraordinary progress.”

“We argued strongly from the beginning that it would just create another level of bureaucracy and beyond that, it would not be an efficient way to deal with the war on terror,” said Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute (search).

Critics agree that it is too early to tell whether DHS is doing a better job of achieving domestic security goals than could have the 22 separate agencies folded into the new department.

But supporters in the defense and security community say the new agency has definitely improved critical communication within the intelligence community, streamlined border patrol, customs and immigration procedures and increased airline and port safety. It has also been key in funneling funds and assistance to emergency preparedness officials on the state and local level.

Among the greatest improvements to security since Sept. 11, 2001, and the department's inception are the reorganization of the Customs Service and additional precautions taken by airlines, said Eli Segal, a homeland security consultant for a Fortune 500 company.

Segal acknowledged that it may be too early to expect all the pieces to have fallen into place.

“The consolidation is still in progress. It takes time to ramp things up,” he said.

The Department of Homeland Security was created by legislation signed into law last January. DHS opened its doors in March.

After the Department of Defense was created in 1947 to house the various branches of the Armed Forces, it too went though a period of critique, in which the Pentagon was blamed for failing expectations.

“You had the same exact stories, and people saying the same exact thing – people have to get a dose of realistic expectations,” said Joseph Carafano, homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation (search).

But Carafano called the department's accomplishments to date “low-hanging fruit,” and warned that the toughest work in bringing the agency together is yet to come.

“Now we’re into the nuts and bolts stuff,” he said. “That’s not going to happen overnight.”

Already, DHS has slipped in its deadlines, and recent reports suggest the department may not make a Jan. 1 goal of enacting the initial phase of its U.S.-Visit program (search). The project, funded in 2002 with $380 million, would allow border agents to check fingerprints and photographs of all foreign visa holders against existing databases.

The technological infrastructure needed to engage such a sweeping system is massive, though it is in the works.

"We have to make sure we are screening to make sure the wrong people aren’t getting into the country and that’s not happening as much as I think it should and it doesn’t seem to be a priority,” said Pena. “One would think, one year out, we would have made significant progress there.”

“It’s going to take time," Carafano said.

Americans don’t have a lot of time when it comes to protecting themselves from terrorist attacks, responded Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. He has repeatedly complained about the failure of the Transportation Security Administration (search) to provide cargo screening and has introduced legislation to make electronic screening devices available.

“Real progress towards stronger homeland security requires real results, not just rhetoric,” said Markey, who serves on the House Homeland Security Committee overseeing the new agency.

Critics believe the creation of a new department means a lot of time and money has been spent without making substantive changes to the functions previously provided by separate bureaus included in the overhaul, such as the former U.S. Customs Service, the Secret Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"It's like shuffling around the deck chairs on the Titanic. It's not really doing what it's intended to do. A lot of money is being spent right now, but it's not being spent as wisely as it should," said David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste (search).

“Any rush job will mean a lot of rushed and unaccountable spending,” said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union (search), who added that no formal mechanism exists for internal audits of DHS' spending.

Lawmakers are attempting to improve how the money is managed, at least funding for first responders at the state and local level.

But with a $30.4 billion budget, 180,000 reshuffled employees and "a few hundred" new hires to populate the TSA, Carafano said the department is not a runaway train.

“With the exception of creating TSA we really didn’t create a new bureaucracy,” said Carafano. “And if you look at the overhead, it’s pretty thin.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.