GAO Study: Homeland Security A Work in Progress

In the eight years since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established, in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the massive new agency has made significant progress in implementing domestic security measures, but several areas still need improvement, according to a study recently issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). (See “Department of Homeland Security: Progress Made and Work Remaining in Implementing Homeland Security Missions 10 Years after 9/11,” U.S. Government Accountability Office, Sep 2011.) ).

DHS certainly has its work cut out for it. As the GAO notes in the beginning of the study, the agency was created as part of a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. national security apparatus:

“The events of September 11, 2001, led to profound changes in government policies and structures to confront homeland security threats. Most notably, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began operations in 2003 with key missions that included preventing terrorist attacks from occurring in the United States, and minimizing the damages from any attacks that may occur. DHS now is the third-largest federal department, with more than 200,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $50 billion.”

According to the GAO, that overhaul has been comparatively successful, considering the dangers and uncertainties of the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks. The GAO praised DHS efforts ranging from its strategic planning initiatives, to its creation of entirely new security units that respond to emerging threats – agencies like the TSA, and the Computer Emergency Readiness Team. Nonetheless, GAO says that DHS has a great deal of work ahead of it, and that its transformation into a fully functioning department “remains high risk due to its management challenges.” GAO enumerated several areas that remain works in progress, despite significant advances over the years:

  • Border security. DHS has implemented US-VISIT to verify identities of foreign visitors to the United States, but is still working on biometric tracking of visitors exiting the country; it has built infrastructure to secure the border, including over 600 miles of fencing, but cancelled an IT-based secure border initiative due to technical problems.
  • Aviation security. DHS now screens airline passengers against terrorist watch lists, and has new programs to screen checked baggage and air cargo. However, DHS is still working to deploy new technologies to meet explosive-detection standards for checked baggage; the integrity of its baggage-screening data needs tightening, as does its screening process for containerized cargo.
  • Emergency preparedness. DHS has done extensive planning to ensure quick responsiveness to a wide variety of emergencies. However, DHS needs to work more closely with state and local governments to formulate disaster plans that better reflect the emergency-response capacities of state and local partner agencies. DHS also needs to streamline its disaster preparedness grant programs.
  • Leading and coordinating the homeland security enterprise. DHS has made “important strides in providing leadership and coordinating efforts among its stakeholders” – but still does a poor job sharing information about important security threats. GAO notes that in 2005, it “designated information sharing for homeland security as high risk because the federal government faced challenges in analyzing and sharing information in a timely, accurate, and useful way.”

Implementing and integrating management functions for results. The GAO makes clear that, despite improvements, DHS still has major management problems, and still is working to integrate its many sub-agencies into a single department. Management challenges “have contributed to schedule delays, cost increases, and performance problems in a number of programs aimed at delivering important mission capabilities.

In the border security section of the report, the GAO finds that DHS has improved the security of visas and taken important measures to prevent travel document fraud – citing ICE’s Visa Security Program, the Visa Waiver Program, and the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative – but noted that “further steps are needed to evaluate these efforts, address potential risks, and enhance training and oversight.”

In its discussion of immigration services, the GAO hails USCIS for its improvements in “the quality and efficiency of the immigration benefit administration process,” and its efforts to detect and deter immigration fraud. According to the GAO, USCIS is making important strides to:

  • modernize its immigrant benefit administration infrastructure;
  • improve efficiency and timeliness of its application intake process; and
  • ensure quality in its benefit administration process.

Two key problem areas for USCIS, the GAO reports, are:

  • long delays (more than two years) in implementing a paperless system for processing applications for immigration benefits, due to planning and management problems; and
  • determining the existence and extent of fraud in adjudicating certain applications for permanent residence, particularly those based on asylum claims or submitted on behalf of religious workers.

GAO also praised U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “for continuously vetting recently issued U.S. nonimmigrant visas for derogatory information that becomes available subsequent to visa issuance. CBP reported that, if it uncovers such derogatory information, it alerts the Department of State that the traveler may no longer be eligible for the visa.” However, it made no note of the fact that these post-issuance alerts can cause significant problems for both the holders of nonimmigrant visas – such as H1Bs – and the companies that employ them. This appears not to be a problem, at least from the GAO and DHS perspective. Although we cannot fault these efforts from the security perspective, we think it is important to consider the impact of these measures on the stakeholders who are affected, bearing in mind the legitimate needs of American businesses to hire the best and brightest talent from overseas.

In judging the success of DHS as an agency, it bears remembering just how difficult a task has been set for it. Under the best of circumstances, it would be a tall order to pull together the workers, corporate cultures, and institutional competencies of several agencies that used to function independently. DHS had the unenviable task of breaking its component agencies out of their old corporate silos, and coordinating their efforts for maximum effectiveness. This cannot have been easy. The GAO report indicates that, on balance, the DHS is doing a creditable job – and that there is still room for improvement.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.