Is the US safer now?

Both safety upgrades and lack of vision are cited on department's anniversary.

One year after its founding, the US Department of Homeland Security has just begun to grapple with one of its most challenging problems: defining what "homeland security" should mean to Americans decades hence.

Unarguably, the mammoth department has already accomplished a lot. Twenty-two agencies have been welded together into something resembling a unified whole. Initiatives such as having armed air marshals have made the nation in some measure safer.

But it's a Washington truism that huge security holes remain. Few shipping containers entering the country are inspected, for instance. National biodefense plans may be woefully incomplete. Overall, say some experts, the department lacks a vision. It's a question of time, as much as effort. DHS, as the department is called, needs to methodically

study threats, rank possible responses, and allocate limited funds accordingly, over time - as the Pentagon does for its operations. "Everyone knows the Department of Homeland Security was created out of 9/11, but we're not quite sure what it will look like 20 or 30 years from now," says Juliette Kayyem, a domestic preparedness expert at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Was it the flavor of the week, or will it have a cohesive strategy?"

President Bush, for his part, now argues that the creation of a unified Department of Homeland Security was the government's most important step in helping Americans deal with the terror threat. In a speech Tuesday, Mr. Bush told DHS employees, "You get a gold star for a job well done." He lauded the overhaul of airport security, the addition of border guards, and the allocation of $13 billion to train local police, firefighters, EMS technicians, and other authorities likely to be the first responders to any attack.

"We're doing what is necessary to protect this country," he said.

Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge hailed US-VISIT, the airport entry/exit program tracking visitors from many foreign nations, in his anniversary speech last week. SEVIS, another new system, tracks students and exchange visitors in the US. Two hundred people who held student visas but had not registered at any school were sent home during the past year, said Mr. Ridge.

Perhaps DHS's most amazing achievement is simply that it exists, suggested Ridge. The merger of 180,000 people and 22 agencies has been "undoubtedly the biggest management challenge of all time," he said.

But over DHS's first year, two of its most visibly public initiatives - the push for Americans to create a personal response kit, and the color-coded threat alert system - have received a decidedly mixed response. When Ridge urged Americans to stockpile duct tape and plastic sheeting, he produced a windfall for Home Depot but little else. Only 20 to 30 percent of Americans currently have an emergency supply kit, according to DHS.

The alert system, meanwhile, has served its intended purpose - but also made the nation jittery at times. DHS is now developing a code system tailored to geographic areas, so that Nevada police won't have to shoulder overtime when terrorist "chatter" hints at a threat in New York.

Furthermore, it isn't clear whether the DHS intelligence analysis unit is the force that it should be. One of the reasons a political consensus developed to found the department in the first place was the revelation that intelligence gathering and analysis related to domestic threats was fragmented. Yet today, the DHS unit at the new Terrorist Threat Integration Center is only half-strength, according to a new report from Democrats on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

"We can't have complete confidence that the gaps in the intelligence system that were so prominent on 9/11 are now cured," says Donald Kettl, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who is a contributor to a Century Foundation report on DHS's first year.

Biodefense might be another gap. Of the 57 countermeasures needed to defend against the most dangerous biological agents, only one can be widely distributed today, notes the House Democratic report. Of the 7 million cargo containers that arrive at US ports yearly, only a small percentage have been physically or mechanically inspected. There is only one border agent per 5.5 miles of northern US border. Citizens of 27 countries are exempt from US-VISIT screening. "We need to take faster and stronger action to close these gaps," concludes the report.

Perhaps the cumbersome new department is moving as fast as it can. It was years before the Department of Defense began to operate in an integrated manner. Even today the different cultures and missions of the armed services can create tensions. "The integration of agencies that were separate may take a long time," says Robert Pfaltzgraff of Tufts University's Fletcher School.

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