DHS' track record invites continued scrutiny

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Clark Kent Ervin, former DHS watchdog

Rick Steele

Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general of the Homeland Security Department, joined the Aspen Institute in January as director of the think tank's newly established Homeland Security Initiative, based in Washington, D.C.

Ervin was the first inspector general of DHS, named acting IG on Jan. 24, 2003, the day the department was created. He became IG through a recess appointment by President Bush in December 2003, which expired a year later.

He came to DHS after serving as inspector general of the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors from August 2001 to January 2003.

Ervin served in the Texas government under then-Governor Bush. From 1995 to 1999, he was assistant secretary of state. From 1991 to 2001, he served as deputy attorney general, general counsel, and director of administration in the Office of the Attorney General of Texas. Ervin practiced law in Houston with Vinson & Elkins LLP from 1985 to 1989, and with Locke, Liddell & Sapp from 1993 to 1995.

Ervin holds an undergraduate degree in government from Harvard University, a master's degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and a law degree from Harvard. GCN senior writer Patience Wait interviewed him in his office at the Aspen Institute in Washington.

GCN: You were at DHS from the beginning. Would you say the department has developed a good institutional knowledge of what IT can be used for and what it's not appropriate for?
Ervin: That's hard for me to answer, really. I think that Steve Cooper, the CIO of the department'I was impressed by him.
I'm a little surprised that he stayed as long as he did. I felt bad for him because he wasn't given the authority, the resources that he needed to get the job done. He would always lament that we had, when I was the inspector general, 30, 40 people or so in an office exclusively devoted to inspecting and auditing IT matters. Steve would always say, 'You have more people overseeing what we do in the department than I have in my own office to actually do the IT work for the department.'

GCN: What are the challenges you believe still need to be addressed?

Ervin: One of the key tasks, probably the first task, would be just inventorying all the systems the department inherited. Then you have to look at the interoperability: Can all these systems communicate with each other? And of course, the answer to that is no. Then the department is developing new systems, Secure Flight and U.S. Visit. We were arguing that all of these systems that had to do with processing people ought to be interoperable, ought to be able to communicate with each other, for obvious reasons, and that wasn't happening.

Then there's the whole issue of security. The department would get failing grades on our IT security audits. We did this very telling audit where we actually attempted to test the use of wireless equipment at the Nebraska Avenue Complex, the main headquarters. We found it was so easy to pick up the signal. If you could do it at the DHS headquarters, what did that say about the other networks that the department had elsewhere?

GCN: You mentioned Secure Flight and U.S. Visit, and then there's the Transportation Workers Identification Credential program. Is that a program DHS is equipped to implement?

Ervin: Well, certainly the department isn't. It just has a very, very poor track record of conceiving of these projects, of having strategic plans to implement them, thinking through all of the steps that need to be thought through, and then executing it and doing so in a timely fashion, a cost-efficient fashion. In project after project after project, there were problems.

I am cautiously optimistic, I'm very pleased that there's a new team, and I think there are good things about the team, because I don't want people to think I'm just a carper who is just reflecting negatively on the department. I'm not. Nothing would please me more than those relatively rare occasions when I could say something good about the department.

GCN: Was there anything at the department you wanted to look into but didn't have a chance to?

Ervin: A lot of things, absolutely. There were certain things that we were beginning, that we had begun, that just weren't completed by the time I left.

You know we did a number of reports about the laxity of the background check process, both for screeners and for air marshals, so that just raised the whole question in my mind of whether appropriate checks were done on people who were applying for citizenship and other immigration benefits.

Two, we were beginning to work on CSI, the Container Security Initiative. That's one of the things the department talks about all the time. And I must say, in theory, it makes a lot of sense. This is exactly the kind of thing the department should be attempting. I don't have any problem at all'in fact, I applaud the concept'but it's the execution that I wondered about. I just don't really trust what the department says when it says things are working fine.

This idea of pushing the border out makes sense; let's do this before it even gets to the United States. So as you know, they have this agreement, I think it's with 33 countries, the 21 largest ports in the world, to station inspectors there.

GCN: How much is DHS affected by pressure from the contractor community to try new technologies or to standardize on this as opposed to that?

Ervin: I guess what I'd say about the contractor world is that the department has proved to be an easy mark. By that I mean the department has been so lax in administering these contracts and in instituting controls at the very beginning to prevent contract abuses, that contractors have taken the department on occasion for a ride.

I can give you an example. We did that report on the explosive detection systems. Boeing Co. was paid at least $49 million that it oughtn't to have been paid at all because really the bulk of the work was done by the subcontractors, and the department could have just contracted directly with those subcontractors and not paid Boeing a dime.

Further, it was a cost-plus-percentage-of-cost contract, such that the more Boeing charged, the more it's going to get. Just those two things, those two principles'don't contract with somebody if the real work is going to be done by a subcontractor; don't do a cost-plus-percentage contract. Those are just basic contract principles that, if the department had instituted them at the beginning, we wouldn't have had that problem. That was a $49 million issue.

GCN: Probably the first big contract'awarded by the Transportation Security Administration before the creation of DHS, but completed after TSA moved'was the hiring of the screeners.

Ervin: That's a report that was in process as I was leaving. We've been working on that for a year, probably. I was hoping it would be out soon.

And there are several things that are interesting. We were told when we were doing the field work that, to its credit, [contractor] NCS Pearson Inc. was trying to save the department money on this. [Pearson asked:] 'Why are you requiring us to set up full new assessment centers? In certain instances we already have assessment centers, if not in this exact city, at least in the region, that can handle it.' And TSA insisted on setting up new ones, and they wanted to do it in really fancy places like the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Telluride, Colo. I mean, this kind of thing just happened again and again.

So the contractors were allowed to take the department for a ride. At a minimum, it was really lax oversight.

GCN: On that TSA contract, Congress had set a drop-dead date, and the agency seemed to decide they were more comfortable blowing past the budget limits than going back to Congress and saying this is an unrealistic deadline for the money that you've given us. How much is that happening still with all of these programs at DHS?

Ervin: I think there is some merit to that, to be fair. Congress is part of the problem here. The Congress put such tight deadlines on TSA in particular that many of them were unrealistic, and TSA and [TSA's then-administrator James] Loy were so focused on meeting those deadlines that some corners were cut. To me, it would have been more important to get it right than to get it done quickly. But that's part of the problem.

That's no excuse, it seems to me, for not having put the controls in place, but it's an explanation for it. I'm sympathetic to the department for the challenge that Congress posed in that regard.

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