Within a month of the attacks, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge began working out of a special White House Office of Homeland Security set up in the wake of the attacks. After Congress passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Ridge became the first secretary of the huge new department.
Ridge was succeeded in 2005 by Michael Chertoff, who served as DHS secretary until January 2009 and now heads the Chertoff Group, a security consultancy.
As the second secretary of DHS, Chertoff was responsible for growing the agency from its original foundation, he told Federal News Radio. And while there have been both successes and hurdles for the department, Chertoff said one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business remains Congressional oversight of homeland security.
The second secretary
Chertoff credits his predecessor, Ridge, for building the foundations of what the department would eventually become.
“It’s kind of like a house in which the foundation and basic frame had been put up, but the walls had not been and the interior wasn’t fully developed,” Chertoff described DHS as it stood when he took over in February 2005.
And since then, the young agency has continued to evolve. “I think actually the department has matured quite a bit,” he said, listing improvements to the department’s business processes and the ability to execute its plans.
One of the first snarls for the agency was incorporating and integrating some 180,000 workers from previous departments into the behemoth new agency. When Chertoff took over about two years after its creation, it was already the third largest federal department, he said.
He acknowledged “some bumps on the road” — especially in bringing the scores of new employees under the DHS roof.
But he said DHS’ eventual policy of respecting the legacies of former agencies absorbed by DHS helped smooth the transitions.
“While I think it was important to get everybody to be unified around the concept of ‘one DHS,'” Chertoff said, “we concluded that it was a mistake to ask people to sacrifice what were, in some cases, centuries of legacy and history,” such as the U.S. Coast Guard or U.S. Secret Service.
Work to be done
The creation of DHS was a key recommendation made by the 9/11 Commission, which deliberated for nearly two years and issued more than 40 recommendations.
In terms of implementing the commission’s guidelines, which Chertoff called “very helpful suggestions,” there has been “huge progress in every respect but one,” he said: that Congress centralize and consolidate agency oversight of homeland security.
There are reported to be some 88 Congressional subcommittees or full committees that have homeland security oversight powers, a number critics say is ungainly and cumbersome.
“That’s the one suggestion that every secretary has endorsed and begged for and that has never actually happened,” he added.
But Chertoff also pointed out successes in homeland security, including aviation and port security, and perhaps the most high-profile of all: the advances in information sharing that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs bolstered by years of painstaking intelligence work.
With the rare East Coast earthquake that rattled buildings and nerves in Washington, D.C. last week and Hurricane Irene, which blew through the region over the weekend, disaster preparedness efforts — which DHS has overseen since it absorbed FEMA — were top of mind for many.
“I think it reminds you that the essence of being prepared is to be prepared for what’s unpredictable,” Chertoff said. “It’s not what you expect that is difficult, but what you don’t expect.”
The series of natural disasters and the robust federal response have also called into question the role of the federal government.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the general approach taken by FEMA was to take a back seat to state and local first responders, Chertoff said. But because of Katrina’s devastation and the inadequacy of initial efforts, the public now expects the federal government to take a much more hands-on approach, he added.
The changes after Katrina, which are still basically in place today, “really changed the doctrine,” Chertoff said. “The idea here was to have the capability to stand in reserve if necessary … to come in if there was a failure on the part of the local or state of governments.”
Chertoff acknowledged that some think FEMA and DHS have assumed too much of a forward role in current disaster relief efforts. But Chertoff suggested the times have simply changed.
“I think that after Katrina, the expectations of the American public have changed, he said. “And the federal government will always have to stand as a backup even for the initial response.”