Ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress last week issued a report stating that the federal government has made strides in preventing terrorism, but has a way to go to fully secure the nation.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, known by its acronym GAO, delivered a seesaw, good news-bad news report in its analysis of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The department was created in 2003, combining 22 agencies that handled everything from border security to screening of airplanes and passengers.
The department, with more than 200,000 employees and an annual budget of $50 billion, is now the third-largest federal agency.
The GAO has made 1,500 recommendations to the department, about half of which have been enacted, the report states. Efforts are under way by the department to strengthen its operations, according to the report.
“Eight years after its creation and 10 years after Sept. 11, 2001, DHS has made significant strides in protecting the nation, but has yet to reach its full potential,” the report stated.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., serves as the chairwoman of the Homeland Security subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee and praised the department, acknowledging its shortcomings.
“We’re aware of what those gaps are and we’ll work very hard to fill in the spaces,” Landrieu said. “But overall, the country has come an exceedingly far way in establishing this new department, reorganizing, and we are much, much better prepared today than we were, of course, 10 years ago.”
The report commended the department for creating Secure Flight, a program for screening airline passengers against a terrorist watch list. It has also developed a new program and technologies to screen passengers and check baggage and air cargo, according to the report.
However, the department does not yet have a plan for screening to meet enhanced explosive detection equipment for checked baggage and air cargo, the report stated.
The department has made important improvements in providing leadership and coordinating efforts among stakeholders in security, including the private sector, according to the report.
But the expectations of those involved in security, including the private sector, have not been met by the department in areas related to sharing information about cyber-based threats and critical infrastructure, according to the report.
The GAO recognized the challenge the department faces in bringing 22 agencies into a single department fold, saying that the agency has demonstrated strong leadership commitment and begun to implement a strategy to address its management challenges.
However, those challenges have contributed to schedule delays, cost increases and performance problems in a number of programs aimed at delivering important mission goals such as container security technologies, according to the report.
The GAO praised the department for developing fusion centers, such as the one established in Baton Rouge. The centers, which include a string of local and state agencies working together to combat terrorism, serve as focal points for the analysis and sharing of threat- and vulnerability-related information, and passenger screening and prescreening programs.
The department now has 20,000 border agents in the southwest region of the country. The department has expanded its immigration and customs enforcement programs and between 2004 and 2010, field offices closed about 34,700 cases of visitors overstaying their visas, the report stated.
The cases resulted in about 8,100 arrests, according to the report. The increased enforcement, however, was relative to the 4 million to 5.5 million estimated in the overstay population.
The department has also created 19 posts in 15 countries to prevent individuals who pose a threat from entering the United States, the report said. Yet it failed to establish nine posts identified for expansion in 2009 and 2010.
“Still, we have a tremendous amount of work to do,” Landrieu said.
Gerard Shields is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is GerardShields@aol.com.