DHS getting a bad rap on cybersecurity?

It takes quite a bit to make me feel sorry for the Homeland Security Department. These are, after all, the people who make you wait barefoot in line to be groped and ogled at the airport.

But Sen. John McCain, the self-styled rogue Republican from Arizona, actually managed to make me feel sympathetic to DHS during a recent rant.

“Most of us who have been through an airport have no confidence in the technological capabilities of the Department of Homeland Security,” was the kindest thing he said during a recent Senate Armed Services Committee budget hearing.

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McCain, who would like to see the Defense Department take over responsibility for all U.S. cybersecurity — military and civilian — was questioning why DHS should have any role in this area. His witness, Army Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, wasn’t giving him much help. He called cybersecurity a team sport and said DHS and the FBI are essential members of that team.
Alexander said DOD needs greater visibility into global networks to defend its own systems and civilian U.S. networks from attacks. But he said that visibility should come from cooperation with industry, not direct monitoring, and he showed no interest in poaching on DHS’ turf. “I do not believe we want the military inside our networks, watching it,” he said.

DHS, formed in 2003 in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, has not had an easy time of it. It is the third-largest Cabinet-level agency and has been on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list since its creation. Its response to Hurricane Katrina through the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2005 was a national disgrace. Even the department’s own employees don’t like it very much.

GAO’s director of homeland security and justice issues, David Maurer, recently told the House Homeland Security Committee that morale at the department remains a problem. Fewer than half of the respondents in 2011 survey by the Office of Personnel Management felt their talents are being well used, and in private rankings the department ranked 31st out of 33 agencies as a good place to work.

Employees do not report being dissatisfied with their pay or the workload but say they don’t feel they are appreciated and lack faith in management. DHS is looking into the problem but has not yet solved it, Maurer said.

And now on top of this, McCain rips into the department, calling it “probably the most inefficient bureaucracy that I have ever encountered in my number of years here as a member of Congress,” and saying that it “has shown an incredible ability to illustrate inefficiency at its best.”

He accused DHS of wasting $887 million on a virtual fence along the Arizona-Mexico border and said it “has not made a single technological advance as far as airport security is concerned.”

By that point I was feeling that somebody ought to speak up for DHS, and since this was a hearing on military budgets and there was no one present from the department, the job fell to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a rogue in his own right who left the Democratic Party to become an independent.

“Obviously my friend from Arizona and I have a disagreement here,” he said. “The first thing I want to do is come to the defense of the Department of Homeland Security. The fact is we haven’t had a major terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9-11, and you have to give the leadership over two administrations and the thousands of people who work at DHS some credit for that.”

More than 10 years without an attack. That’s not a bad record.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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