The Self Made Pundit
Wednesday, November 20, 2002
DEPARTMENT OF THE TITANIC: It would be unfair to compare the rush to establish the Department of Homeland Security with rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
A better analogy would be rearranging the lifeboats after the Titanic hit that iceberg. It might have been a good idea at one point, but that was probably not the best time to engage in reorganizations.
The creation of the Homeland Security Department is being hailed as the greatest reorganization of the federal government since Congress approved President Truman’s proposal to create the Department of Defense more than 50 years ago. The creation of the Department of Defense is instructive, however. FDR and Congress did not rush to reorganize the federal bureaucracy while America was engaged in the dire struggle of World War II. Instead, the country wisely focused its energies on defeating an undeniable Axis of evil before turning to a reorganization of the nation’s defenses that had the potential of being disruptive. As The New York Times notes:
President Harry S. Truman announced his plan to combine the War and Navy Departments into a single Defense Department in December 1945, three months after the American victory in World War II, but the plan was not approved by Congress for another two years.
Even supporters of the new department acknowledge the danger that such a massive reorganization of the government could disrupt anti-terrorism efforts in the short run:
“This is going to be difficult and it's going to take longer than anyone thinks,” warned Senator Fred Thompson, the Republican of Tennessee who was a leading sponsor of the Senate bill creating the Department of Homeland Security.
Comptroller General David M. Walker, who directs the General Accounting Office, the Congressional watchdog agency, said today, “It's going to take years in order to get this department fully integrated – you're talking about bringing together 22 different entities, each with a longstanding tradition and its own culture.”
He said that if the initial organization was handled badly and if the agencies that are being brought together in the department resisted cooperation, the result could damage the government's counterterrorism program as it exists now.
“If this is not handled properly, we could be at increased risk,” Mr. Walker said. “That's why you have to focus on a short list of priorities, including making sure that key people are in contact with each other.”
He added, “That's as basic as trying to make sure that things like voice mail and e-mail are linked up.”
It is not at all clear that whatever increased efficiencies may result from this new bureaucracy could not have been achieved – without substantial disruption – by such measures as improving coordination of existing departments and agencies. Determining that, however, would have meant actually studying the issue – as the federal government did in creating the Department of Defense – instead of rushing to rubber stamp a bill laden with giveaways to corporate special interests. Even if the benefits outweigh the costs in the long term, it probably would have been wiser to adopt interim measures in the short term since any disruptions in our anti-terrorism efforts now could be deadly on a massive scale.
Senator Byrd has been one of the few voices to warn that it is wiser to remain focused on the main goal of combating terrorism than to rush ahead for the sake of being able to claim that you did something:
Mr. Byrd, of course, is not one of those timid souls, and his recent speeches have been extraordinary even for the maestro of senatorial rhetoric, who turns 85 on Wednesday. While his colleagues have debated the fine points of the domestic security bill, he has been virtually alone in asking the larger question: Why is this new department suddenly so necessary? What will the largest and hastiest reorganization of the federal government in half a century do besides allow politicians to claim instant credit for fighting terrorism?
“Osama bin Laden is still alive and plotting more attacks while we play bureaucratic shuffleboard,” Mr. Byrd told the Senate. “With a battle plan like the Bush administration is proposing, instead of crossing the Delaware River to capture the Hessian soldiers on Christmas Day, George Washington would have stayed on his side of the river and built a bureaucracy.” Mr. Byrd imagined Nathan Hale declaring, “I have but one life to lose for my bureaucracy,” and Commodore Oliver Perry hoisting a flag on his ship with the rallying cry, “Don't give up the bureaucracy!”
As he was waiting to speak on the floor yet again this afternoon, Mr. Byrd sat in his office and marveled at the rush to pass the bill.
“That Department of Homeland Security will not add one whit of security in the near future to the American people,” he said. “In the meantime, the terrorists are going to be very busy. I'm concerned that in our drive to focus on the war in Iraq and the Department of Homeland Security, we're going to be taking our eyes off what the terrorists may do to us.”
I fear that Senator Byrd may be right.
The establishment of the Homeland Security Department belongs in the same category as the Bush Administrations rush to invade Iraq. Perhaps such efforts will prove necessary in the long term. In the short term, however, America should be more focused on the greatest immediate threat to its security – Al Qaeda and the recently resurfaced Osama bin Laden.
I think it would be far wiser to remain focused on this immediate threat and devote more energy and resources to rooting out existing Al Qaeda adherents and cells in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries. Who knows, we might even find that fellow President Bush once said we would get dead or alive.