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 billionroughly 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, 5all occupied
by various Navy spy programswere 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
electionIraq, the economy, taxesbut 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 prioritiesand its obsession with Iraqhave 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 criticismespecially 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.