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Red Alert

It was billed as America's front-line defense against terrorism. But badly underfunded, crippled by special interests, and ignored by the White House, the Department of Homeland Security has been relegated to bureaucratic obscurity.

Obscurely tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood of Washington, the Department of Homeland Security is far removed from the columned federal buildings downtown. Drive by its fortified main gates, as thousands of motorists do each day, and you probably won't even know it's there. No sign announces the department's subleased headquarters, and nothing indicates that the jumble of red-brick colonial structures inside the Nebraska Avenue Complex of the Washington Naval District houses the largest government agency in the United States.

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My initial reaction when I presented myself at the small guardhouse at the NAC, as the Navy's intelligence complex is known, was that I was in the wrong place. But no, the security guard assured me, this was it. "Building 3," he added, sliding a plastic-laminated entry pass embossed with maritime insignia through a slot in the Plexiglas partition.

I had come to the NAC as one of the first journalists to get an inside look at what was billed as the most ambitious government overhaul since the creation of the Pentagon in 1947. Unveiled on March 1, 2003, the Department of Homeland Security has been touted as the Bush administration's bold response to the new threats facing America in the post-Cold War world of global terrorism. Composed of 22 formerly separate federal agencies, it boasts 186,200 employees. Its far-flung operations are funded by a budget of nearly $27 billion—roughly the equivalent of Microsoft's revenues. On any given day, these megabucks go to screening 1.5 million airline passengers, inspecting 57,000 trucks and shipping containers, and making 266 arrests and 24 drug seizures. Each day, the department reviews 2,200 intelligence reports and cables, issues information bulletins to as many as 18,000 recipients, and trains 3,500 federal officers from 75 different agencies. It deploys 108 patrol aircraft, has a fleet of more than 350,000 vehicles, operates 238 remote video surveillance systems, and stands watch over 8,000 federal facilities, ports, power plants, tunnels, and bridges. And that's just a sampling of DHS's myriad activities, which the agency has posted on its website to give taxpayers a taste of what they get for $75 million a day in security spending.

On paper, DHS is a colossus, and I had naively expected that its headquarters would be equally impressive. But at first, I couldn't even find Building 3. I wandered down the main road, past the heavy hydraulic vehicle barriers, no-trespassing notices, cameras, and some landscapers making a racket with a leaf-blower. Buildings 18, 11, 22, 5—all occupied by various Navy spy programs—were plainly visible, but not 3. The landscapers were not much help. "Maybe that way," said one, with a noncommittal wave of his rake. That led me down Intelligence Way to the intersection of Cryptologic Court, which seemed a fanciful name for what was essentially a service entrance to a dark, dank courtyard dominated by an industrial-sized power generator. The only thing missing for the Dickensian tableau to be complete was a couple of Dumpsters overflowing with garbage. This couldn't possibly be it. "Yeah, just down there," said a passerby emerging from beneath a brick archway that led to a narrow fire lane forking off from the desolate courtyard. The little alley was barely wide enough for a car, much less a Cabinet secretary's motorcade, and at the end of it was a dull gray steel door, such as you might see at the side entrance of a warehouse or a seedy after-hours club. A small plaque was affixed to the unpainted wall: The Department of Homeland Security.

In the game of smoke and mirrors that is otherwise known as national politics, Americans will go to the polls in November to choose a leader who they think can best protect them from terrorist attack. Other issues will be important in the presidential election—Iraq, the economy, taxes—but none will be as central as which candidate can keep us safe.

Defending America has been a pillar of President Bush's reelection campaign. Only the president, argue his backers, has the resolve and strength of leadership to prevent another 9/11. This campaign tactic has proved surprisingly effective. Even as public opinion polls show that increasing numbers of Americans are wondering whether the White House has been fighting the right battle in Baghdad, many remain convinced that President Bush will be tougher on terror than his Democratic opponent. This view has been a mainstay of Republican campaign commercials, conservative talk radio shows, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, and, of course, the folks at Fox. Unfortunately, like a lot of "popular" notions generated by concerted public relations drives, it's a myth not rooted in reality.

The war on terror has many fronts, not the least of which is the one right here at home. But as I learned in more than two years of reporting on the often neglected domestic front lines of the war on terror, defending the homeland simply doesn't appear to have captured the imagination of the White House the way, say, a firefight in Falluja does.

Hamstrung by special interests, staffed with B-team political appointees, and crippled by a lack of funding and political support, DHS is a premier example of how the administration's misplaced priorities—and its obsession with Iraq—have come at the direct expense of homeland security.

From my vantage point, standing for the first time outside its bleak, back-alley entrance, DHS seemed cruelly cut down to size, more like a minor, ill-favored bureaucratic outpost than the largest government agency in America. That it could be both at once spoke volumes about how cynically the political process in our nation's capital can work.

It is well known in Washington that the Bush administration was not overly enthusiastic about the idea of forming a homeland security department, which was first floated by Democrats like Senator Joe Lieberman. The very notion ran counter to the Republican mantra of fighting "big government." Any reorganization on this scale (650 separate computer systems to integrate, 18 different unions to bring to heel, etc.) was bound to be fraught with problems and to invite criticism—especially with an election around the corner. And once the department was up and running, the president could easily lose control of the whole thing. Congress would have much greater oversight over DHS's operations than if it had remained a small, relatively anonymous policy unit within the protective confines of the White House.

On the other hand, the public was clamoring for the government to take action on terrorism, and Congress solidly backed the idea of combining all domestic counterterror responsibilities. So while DHS did not start as a project near and dear to the president's heart, political expediency ultimately forced its creation.

But was it for real? Or simply a paper tiger, "a myth," as some cynics such as Hillary Clinton have suggested? I would have been inclined to dismiss the senator's remark as partisan, but now DHS's wholly inadequate headquarters gave me pause. It was spectacularly, even suspiciously, out of character for status-conscious Washington, almost like an afterthought, as if someone had said, "Oh, yeah, them— stick 'em in the storage room in the basement and keep them out of my hair."

The NAC was supposed to have been a temporary home for DHS, somewhere for a skeleton staff to pitch its tent until a suitable location could be found. But the department's search for a permanent site had coincided with the planning of the invasion of Iraq. With senior White House officials otherwise preoccupied, the staffer responsible for finding the right location had dropped the ball, selecting a site in far-off suburban Virginia that Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge nixed at the last moment. And so, on the eve of its mandated start date in March 2003, DHS found itself homeless, and stuck at the naval complex.

My questions about whether the department had been dealt a bad hand were not dispelled the day of my visit, some three months later, when I announced myself on the old-fashioned phone that hung next to the steel door. The reception area was no bigger than a cubicle, without even room for a chair. It had a cheap suspended ceiling of yellowed acoustic tiles and was decorated with a badly mounted blown-up photo of Ridge walking with Bush, both striding purposefully toward the mutual goal of keeping us all out of harm's way. The only other adornment was a large red sign that said, "No Cell Phones, Wireless PDAs, or 2-way Pagers Beyond this Point." I deposited my mobile phone into one of the little post-office-box-style lockers, pocketed the key, and stood waiting for my appointment with Bob Liscouski.

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