IT IS unsettling to discover how far behind the Homeland Security Department is in safeguarding the country after the 9/11 attacks. The blame may be shared between a deadline-dizzy Congress and a hopelessly overwhelmed new bureaucracy, but the outcome is the same: A nation still too vulnerable to terrorist threats.
The Bush Administration has missed several congressional deadlines to implement protective measures where national security lapses remain a constant danger. Plans to defend ships and ports from terrorist attacks are at least six months late.
A blueprint on how to best protect air cargo from infiltration by terrorists is two months overdue. A study gauging the cost of giving anti-terrorism training to federal agents who fly commercially should have been done more than three years ago.
A top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee says the government has failed to produce a comprehensive strategy to protect roads, bridges, tunnels, power plants, pipelines, and dams. Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson believes if a system to protect levees and dams were in place, New Orleans may have weathered Katrina, and without breached levees.
"The incompetence that we recently saw with FEMA's leadership appears to exist throughout the Homeland Security Department," he said.
In defense of the department, others argue, Congress has seemingly imposed deadlines on every plan, regulation, and report fashioned by the mammoth bureaucracy even as it attempts to integrate 22 agencies with 170,000 workers to effectively cope with national disasters.
The deadlines, complain some, are so pervasive that the department occasionally struggles to fulfill protocol for minor projects that detract from more pressing priorities. "The urgent becomes the enemy of the important," said Dan Prieto, a homeland security expert at Harvard.
Department spokesman Russ Knocke says the reporting requirements are "extraordinarily high, with 256 documents submitted annually to Congress. The Transportation Security Administration alone submits 62 reports a year.
Instead of pulling together to jointly advance critical security measures, both bureaucrats and politicians seem to be impeding progress by pushing in opposite directions.
"There's a lack of adult leadership on both sides," said James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation. The department doesn't have its act together he observed, and some of the imposed deadlines are unrealistic.
If that's the case, the oversight process in Congress needs to be examined in conjunction with an evaluation of the department's overall performance - and soon.
Once realistic parameters are established for accomplishing overdue goals, lawmakers should expect deadlines to be met by the Bush Administration without exception.
Gaping national security lapses like still unsecured cargo containers are an outrage four years after terrorists showed how easy it was to breach lax security measures to attack the homeland.
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