Diminishing returns in homeland security

Last week, President George W. Bush signed into law the Department of Homeland Security. A Cabinet-level agency, the department is the largest reorganization of government since the creation of the Department of Defense following World War II. The new patchwork department is enormous – 170,000 federal employees from 22 previously independent agencies consuming $40 billion annually. Although government sharing of information is beneficial in some instances, the new department gives reason to pause as privacy rights are diminished, firewalls between agencies are eliminated and confusion ensues as to the ultimate responsibility of the previously independent divisions.

If the department achieves its aims, U.S. citizens will benefit. One of the largest gains in the private sector over the last decade has been the increased speed and efficiency of information. Although the government has made some gains, as the scrutiny of last year shows, significant gaps remain in its intercommunication. If an improved organizational structure can help to bridge these gaps, the department will be an improvement in government.

But before opening the floodgates, some obstacles in government communication should remain. The government is given greater flexibility in collecting information on national security than in its prevention and prosecution of crime. Some of these shackles on government action are necessary to protect the privacy rights of citizens. But as of yet, the department has not assured Americans there will be no spillage of information collected under the auspice of national security to normal governmental activities. Erecting these information firewalls to allow a free flow of information when necessary, but blocking it when it is not, represents the department’s greatest challenge and danger.

Even if this challenge is overcome, it is unclear if the department will represent a net gain. Organizing this new bureaucracy is estimated to take approximately two to three years. In the meantime, the government employees involved do not have clear direction how they should function. For example, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which regulated the issuance of visas, was eliminated. Visa applicants and immigration workers alike are unsure how to proceed under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. Talk at the upper levels of improved efficiency is fine, but in the meantime clarity is required in the trenches.

The Department of Homeland Security represents good theory waiting to be put into hopefully good practice. The fundamental drive behind the department – improving government effectiveness and reaping the benefits of recent technological shifts – is what citizens should demand from their government. As the government implements the

program, it should bear in mind citizens also demand the protection of their rights to privacy and liberty. Only as the department develops, bearing in mind all these values, will it become clear if this new legislation ultimately bears a beneficial fruit.