Obama opens reality's door — now, can we dump the Dept of Homeland Security?

There is reality and there is Washington reality. Reality is when you do something based on the facts in front of you. Washington reality is when government does something based on the appearance of facts and the need to leave an impression.

President-Elect Barack Obama last week struck a blow against Washington reality when he let it be known that the Domestic Security Council in the Department of Homeland Security would be eliminated and its duties taken over by the National Security Council inside the White House. How many councils does it take to make us secure? One. How many to make us feel secure? Two?

This action should give all of us hope that Obama will extend the logic of last week’s move and do away with DHS entirely.

The Department of Homeland Security is perhaps the best example of Washington’s altered reality in the Bush years. There was no real reason to set up a new $46 billon agency to do what was already being done by government. Our government created DHS because the Washington wise men said we must find a reason our government was caught off guard by the attacks of 9/11 (without blaming any of our current political leaders), and we must show the public we are taking some action to prevent a future attack. Even if it will actually make us less safe.

DHS does not pass the true reality test for two main reasons:

First, 9/11 did not occur because of a lack of communication or cooperation between the CIA and FBI, as the Washington lore teaches. Yes, communication could have been better, but essentially the people working in these agencies did their jobs, and their work was responsible for the memo warning President Bush in August 2001 that Islamic fundamentalists would attack us, probably by air. As reported by many journalists and people inside the government, including Ron Suskind and Richard Clarke, President Bush ignored the memo carried to bush by Condoleezza Rice. It was the President of the United States and the national security advisor who failed at their jobs, not the FBI and CIA.

To think that our president was responsible for such an unspeakable tragedy was too horrific for the Senate or the House of Representatives to contemplate right after the 9/11 tragedy. So instead Washington turned to the Senate’s most reliable bipartisan moralist — Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut — for a soothing palliative to assure the public that their government was taking action to protect them. He came up with the Department of Homeland Security, which proved to be an idea that practically everyone in Washington could get behind. The bill creating DHS passed the House by a vote of 295 to 132, and the Senate by 90 to 9.

The second reason that the Department of Homeland Security does not pass the reality test: Why would a new bureaucracy on top of the CIA and FBI create faster flow of information to the President? We saw how effective FEMA became after it was brought into DHS. It means more people needing to justify their jobs, more memos needed, more chains of command to go through, more government money spent on administering a new department. This has got to produce a system that is slower – not faster – in its response to terrorist threats.

This distortion of reality has made us less ready to fight terrorism, and a created a $46 billion new bureaucracy just because Bush ignored the warning in August 2001. There might be some merit to bringing together the different functions of the agencies. For example, it was probably smart to bring immigration and border security, traditionally part of the Justice Department, under the same roof as the U.S. Customs Agency, which historically was housed in the Treasury Department. These functions could have been consolidated into one of these two departments, however, rather than creating a new government colossus.

Obama cannot eliminate DHS overnight. After all, now there are Congressional committees whose sole function is to oversee – or more accurately, overlook – the doings at DHS. But reality tends to expand its reach in the light of time.

Obama has cracked the door of reality ajar. Wanted: someone in Congress not afraid to open it wide.


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