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Replacing the Department of Homeland Security with Something Better

A mistake made in panic would be best fixed by starting over.

  • clarke Richard A. Clarke
July 28, 2021
View the entire 9/11 at 20 series

This essay is part of the Bren­nan Center’s series explor­ing new approaches to national secur­ity 20 years after 9/11.

Perhaps the most tangible and endur­ing result of the 9/11 attacks is a large, belea­guered, and ill-begot­ten bureau­cracy, the U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity. Enough time has passed since its creation to real­ize that the depart­ment was poorly conceived, and it is not getting appre­ciably better with age. The issues surround­ing domestic secur­ity are, however, increas­ing in import­ance and complex­ity, requir­ing a more effect­ive organ­iz­a­tion.

Prior to 9/11, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion opposed congres­sional sugges­tions that the pres­id­ent play with the U.S. govern­mental organ­iz­a­tion chart to create a new “super depart­ment” focused on what some in Congress were begin­ning to call, in a slightly Orwellian phrase, “home­land secur­ity.” As a career officer and a hold­over from the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion in the role of the White House’s national coordin­ator for secur­ity and coun­terter­ror­ism, I thought that we should be focus­ing on action, not on reor­gan­iz­a­tion.

Follow­ing the 9/11 attack, Bush finally star­ted to take action against al Qaeda and contin­ued to oppose big, struc­tural bureau­cratic changes. He looked to the two agen­cies that had failed to do enough to prevent the 9/11 attack, the FBI domest­ic­ally and the CIA abroad. Neither was prepared for the task, espe­cially the bureau.

The attor­ney general and FBI director had previ­ously contem­plated scal­ing back the small coun­terter­ror­ism effort the bureau had moun­ted, which was being executed by a hand­ful of agents in New York and Wash­ing­ton. In the scores of field offices, almost no one had been trained for the task. I joked at the time with one senior FBI leader that most of his agents prob­ably thought “Al Kyda” might be the name of a Mafia don.

Consid­er­a­tion was given by the Bush team to an idea I suppor­ted: revamp­ing the FBI by creat­ing a new agency to deal with domestic secur­ity, what some called an “Amer­ican MI-5,” after the nick­name of the Brit­ish Secur­ity Service. Bush, however, succumbed to then-FBI Director Robert Mueller’s pleas to give them “one more chance” to deal with the terror­ism threat. It took years for the FBI to become a domestic secur­ity force capable of identi­fy­ing and thwart­ing funda­ment­al­ist Islamic terror­ism in the United States, and it did so by over­staff­ing the mission to the detri­ment of other domestic secur­ity and law enforce­ment tasks.

As far as the White House was concerned, there­fore, the admin­is­tra­tion had made its decision about who would deal with domestic secur­ity. Congress had other ideas. Just as the Bush team had felt the need to do some­thing dramatic after 9/11, invad­ing Afgh­anistan and then Iraq, many in Congress were filled with a desire to take initi­at­ives of their own. Members of both parties coalesced around the idea that the Bush admin­is­tra­tion had publicly rejec­ted: the creation of a “super” cabinet depart­ment through the trans­fer and rearrange­ment of a vast array of exist­ing federal agen­cies with diverse missions. Of the 17 agen­cies the congres­sional plan proposed to mash together in a new coun­terter­ror­ism depart­ment, only one, the Trans­port­a­tion Secur­ity Admin­is­tra­tion, had coun­terter­ror­ism as one of its primary missions.

Told that the massive reor­gan­iz­a­tion plan would pass Congress, Bush dropped his oppos­i­tion and claimed the idea as his own. But neither Congress nor Bush proposed to include in the new depart­ment the one agency that the pres­id­ent had already put in charge of domestic secur­ity, the FBI. Thus, from its first day, the new Home­land Secur­ity Depart­ment was at best a support­ing actor in the coun­terter­ror­ism mission for which it was created.

In the years that followed, it fumbled a response to Hurricane Katrina and irrit­ated citizens at airports with “secur­ity theater.” Under Pres­id­ent Trump, it exhib­ited a combin­a­tion of incom­pet­ence and cruelty in deal­ing with immig­ra­tion. Consist­ently rated poorly by congres­sional and outside assess­ments, the new depart­ment exper­i­enced low morale and diffi­culty in hiring highly qual­i­fied applic­ants. Some of the agen­cies forced to merge into DHS, notably the Secret Service and Coast Guard, began to lay the ground­work for seces­sion from it. Making this bureau­cratic Franken­stein an effect­ive organ­iz­a­tion with good morale and public respect is beyond the capab­il­it­ies of any lead­er­ship team.

Yet as the hapless Home­land Secur­ity Depart­ment approaches its 20th birth­day, the need for an integ­rated domestic secur­ity service remains real. In addi­tion to Islam­ist terror­ism, the United States faces signi­fic­ant threats from white suprem­acists, cyber­crim­in­als, and espi­on­age services of poten­tially hostile nation states. It would make sense to spin off a new depart­ment with that domestic secur­ity focus and no extraneous missions.

A more focused depart­ment — call it the Depart­ment of Public Safety — should be built around the FBI’s National Secur­ity Divi­sion, which has the lead today on coun­terter­ror­ism, cyber­crimes, and coun­terespi­on­age. Those three missions would become the writ of the new depart­ment. From the current Home­land Secur­ity Depart­ment should come the cyber unit and the Secret Service (which chiefly does protect­ive secur­ity). From the Office of the National Intel­li­gence Director would come the National Coun­terter­ror­ism Center. These four entit­ies would form a coher­ent, mission-focused team.

The remain­ing units of today’s Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity could be recast to reflect their predom­in­ant missions — call it the Borders and Trans­port­a­tion Secur­ity depart­ment. The response agency for disasters, the Federal Emer­gency Manage­ment Agency, could return to its original inde­pend­ent status.

Giving these agen­cies a new start in manage­ably sized bureau­cra­cies with focused missions, unburdened from past errors and repu­ta­tion-damaging missteps, would create a more rational organ­iz­a­tional struc­ture with better chances of succeed­ing at their import­ant tasks. Preserving the status quo will only perpetu­ate the mistakes made in the panicked trauma that followed 9/11 and doom these import­ant missions to contin­ued mishand­ling and lack of success.

Richard A. Clarke is CEO of Good Harbor Secur­ity Risk Manage­ment. He served 30 years in national secur­ity posi­tions in the Defense Depart­ment, State Depart­ment, and White House, and he was the national crisis manager on 9/11.