When President Bush proposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, he invoked the example of Harry Truman's defense reorganization in 1947. The historical analogy was curious not because of Bush's invocation of Truman, who seems to be every Republican's favorite Democrat, but because conservatives are supposed to be especially wary of adding layers of bureaucracy.
We clearly need a reorganization of federal defense structures to face the realities of a world in which deadly weapons can be delivered with a force and dispatch not known to previous generations. But simply creating an agency and more top-level bureaucrats is no solution. That's why we should not be worried that Congress failed last week to reach a compromise on the bill creating a Department of Homeland Security, ostensibly because of a dispute over civil service protection. Now, Congress and the President should regroup and either reorganize federal intelligence structures around new priorities or resist adding a new agency and instead work to improve communication between those on the front lines of the war on terrorism.
Bush was right to cite Truman's reorganization in 1947 as a useful example. It's useful because the 1947 National Security Act — designed to reform national defense to fight the Cold War — contains examples of what not to do. Merely adding new layers of administration will not improve coordination between agencies unless those on the front lines learn how to carry out the same mission. The armed forces could not work together as recently as the 1983 invasion of Grenada, when they divided the island in half between the Army and the Marine Corps rather than cooperate in their mission. It took until the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act to strengthen the Joint Chiefs of Staff and improve cooperation.
Policymakers should be wary of the "do-something, do-anything" attitude. The search for a federal panacea can create confusion. The legislation that created the Department of Energy established a cadre of mid-level deputies who in many cases acted as a barrier between agents in the field and top-level administrators, confusing the Department's mission. The Department was created in 1977, and still today we do not have a comprehensive energy policy. Creating a new department made it appear that the president and Congress were addressing the energy crisis without actually confronting difficult policy issues. This is one of the hallmarks of modern, bureaucratic government.
Still, there is room for a true reorganization that prizes results over symbolism. The intelligence agencies need to be restructured from top to bottom to correct infrastructure problems, such as incompatible information systems, and to tackle the even more difficult task of making sure that different agencies work together to combat terrorism while not neglecting other important missions. For instance, the FBI could better handle domestic terrorism if it did not have to spend so many resources pursuing small-time drug crimes. To refocus the FBI's mission on fighting terrorism while shifting some responsibility for policing the drug trade to another agency would require a reorganization similar to the one under Clarence Kelley, the director from 1973-1978, who moved FBI work away from minor theft to major conspiracies. In addition to the agencies themselves, congressional committees should be restructured to streamline jurisdiction and accountability for domestic security.
If an overhaul of the national security bureaucracy is too ambitious, then agencies could work to strengthen coordination among officers on the front lines rather than adding mid-level administrators. There is some evidence that agencies are already improving coordination. Mark Holman, the chief of staff in the White House Office of Homeland Security, recently told Government Executive magazine that "there is clearly an underappreciation from our team's perspective of how improved and efficient the interagency information sharing has been."
Once again, in theory reorganization is easy. Policymakers can show the public that they are addressing the problem of terrorism by creating a new department. In practice, it's tricky. Who establishes coordination? How much managerial flexibility should agencies dealing with domestic defense be given? How nimble can an agency really be with a cadre of mid-level administrators? When does an agency's senior administration help communicate the will of political appointees and when does senior administration frustrate it?
Congress and the Bush administration will decide whether to embark on this highly-ambitious federal reorganization or abandon the proposal for a new department and concentrate on improving coordination among existing agencies. In either case, policymakers should learn from past mistakes and place substance and results over symbolism.