Democrats allege DHS overhaul plan is flawed

Secretary Michael Chertoff's reorganization of the Homeland Security Department takes a few steps in the right direction but fails to do what is necessary to overcome the department's existing ad-hoc approach to security, Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee said in a report released today.

"The department is broken," Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking Democrat on the committee, said in a statement released with the report. "While I commend [Secretary Chertoff] for taking the initiative and addressing important issues, I do not believe the plan is comprehensive."

The Democrats praised Chertoff's plans to name an assistant secretary of cybersecurity and telecommunications, a policy czar, a chief medical officer and a military liaison. They also applauded his proposal to require 10 fingerprints for U.S. Visit foreign visitor screening instead of two fingerprints.

But the report identifies numerous major flaws at DHS that have not been corrected, including lack of money for security in mass-transit systems; inadequate authority for the top procurement, privacy, financial and IT managers; and a flattened management structure that may give the department's political staff too much power.

With more operational agencies reporting to Chertoff directly, the "flatter structure could lead to political staff in the secretary's office having too much control over daily operations of law enforcement and screening agencies," the report said.

Chertoff, who took office in March, began working on the so-called Second Stage Review almost immediately and released the results yesterday.

However, Chertoff missed the mark on public transportation, particularly commuter rail systems and mass transit?which is particularly urgent because terrorists have attacked those modes of transportation in train bombings in Madrid in March 2004 and in London July 7, the Democrats said.

"There is little to no change offered to ensure that the Transportation Security Administration [TSA] is working to secure our transit systems, along with our aviation systems," the report said. "Given last week's events in London and the concerns raised about our nation's own public transit systems, a failure to fix TSA's problems is unacceptable."

Furthermore, according to the Democratic lawmakers, Chertoff has failed to provide appropriate authority for the department's chief privacy officer and for the chief procurement officer, chief financial officer and the chief information officer.

As currently structured, the privacy officer lacks authority to issue subpoenas and must depend on volunteer cooperation, which hampers the ability to perform the duties of the position, the report said.

As for management of the department, Chertoff failed to address the repeated management shortcomings and lax procurement practices raised in numerous reports from the Government Accountability Office and other agencies, the Democrats said.

"Unfortunately, the secretary did not respond to these management weaknesses by elevating the offices in the Management directorate ? to a level above the other directorates," the report said. "Such an elevation would provide greater oversight of contracting and improve technology and information systems within the department."

Currently, the department's business systems suffer from "dual accountability" in which both the departmental officer and the officers of the 22 component agencies are responsible for successful implementation of a directive, the report said.

Without greater centralized authority, DHS will continue to exhibit the management problems that have led to failing grades from the GAO and Congress in protecting information security and other areas, the Democrats said.

The Democrats warn that Chertoff's decisions to place the U.S. Fire Administration and all preparedness functions into a new Preparedness Directorate may create "harmful competition between infrastructure protection, cybersecurity and first-responder needs." Furthermore, it may have a negative impact on the government's ability to form policies for first responders, for whom preparedness and response are closely linked, the report said.

Also unclear is the scope of authority for the new intelligence chief. The Democrats ask whether the intelligence chief will have direct line authority over all intelligence offices in the 22 component agencies and whether he or she will create a common repository of intelligence information. There also are questions about passing on information to state, local and private-sector authorities and what role they would play in intelligence analysis in the department.

Furthermore, the Democrats complained that the reorganization plan was put together without sufficient input from state and local officials, or from the private sector, and even from the Democrats themselves. "The Department's request for input from members of this committee occurred less than 24 hours before the secretary announced the reorganization," the report said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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