Call it a midcourse correction in one of the most vital, and some say, troubled pillars in the nation's fortifications against terrorism.
When he announced an overhaul of the two year old Department of Homeland Security this week, Secretary Michael Chertoff essentially acknowledged the challenges the ungainly collection of 22 federal agencies still faces, from lack of coordination between agencies to ineffective intelligence operations.
At the same time, he laid down his own marker, charting a risk-based course that he believes will better equip the nation to prevent and react to future terrorist attacks.
Many security experts gave him high marks for both recognizing the weaknesses of DHS and addressing them forthrightly and aggressively. Others contend the proposed changes amount to little more than paper shuffling.
But across the spectrum, there is also praise for Chertoff's insistence that money and manpower go first to places that are most vulnerable to attack.
"He really believes in a risk-based approach in the way he envisions executing the department's missions," says Michael Wermuth, director of homeland security for the RAND Corp. in Washington. "That, hopefully, will allow him to use the resources he has most effectively."
Chertoff has already begun establishing "a baseline for preparedness" and has created what he calls an "analytic matrix" which will allow the DHS to analyze communities' vulnerabilities and set priorities "so that we build the right capabilities in the right places at the right level," he said Wednesday. He also plans to centralize all prevention functions in a "Directorate for Preparedness."
That leaves the Federal Emergency Management Agency dealing with disaster response, and creates a kind of one-stop-shop forthe billions of dollars in grants that go to local and state governments for protecting critical infrastructure.
Chertoff will also create a central office to guide policy, and appoint a new chief of intelligence to coordinate the disparate agencies' intelligence operations. That move won some of the highest praise, in part, because the DHS, originally tasked with coordinating domestic intelligence, has been criticized as ineffective in that role.
Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Policy Institute at George Washington University, says Chertoff's plans are predicated on intelligence sharing.
Beefing it up is key. "Not only does it give it more gravitas within the emerging intelligence community," he says, "but it's also there to speak for their customers, the state and locals, so they're not forgotten in terms of tasking but also so their information can get from the bottom up."
Chertoff also won kudos for creating a chief medical officer. Currently, responsibility for preparing for biological attacks is shared by DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services. Critics contend that because no single office within the DHS is responsible for coordinating biological responses, critical operations are getting lost in bureaucracy.
For instance, according to Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security, very little of the $5.6 billion dollars slated for vaccine development is being spent, primarily because DHS has made only four findings of material threatsout of the 60 well-recognized biological, radiological and nuclear agents.
"Appointing a chief medical officer is absolutely targeting a major problem," says Mr. Greenberger. But critics note that despite Chertoff's best intentions, he still faces some extraordinary hurdles both within the agency and in Congress. Just this week, despite Chertoff's strong recommendation, the Senate voted to allocate only 60 percent of local homeland security funds based on risk, a huge setback. He could still remedy that in conference committee, which critics say will be a key test.
They also contend that creating a truly risk-based approach is easy to talk about but difficult to implement, and they point to the Transportation Security Administration as an example.
"TSA has had two or three years to create a risk-based approach. They're still frisking old ladies from Milwaukee and little kids in Blues Clues T-shirts," says David Gaier, a security consultant and former federal agent. "That is not a risk-based approach and I haven't yet seen one in the entire Department of Homeland Security."