WASHINGTON -- In July, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security quietly scuttled a multi-billion dollar program to install high-tech radiation detectors at the nation's ports. A top priority of the Bush administration, the advanced spectroscopic portal (ASP) devices that the Raytheon Company was being paid to build weren't just way behind schedule and enormously over budget -- they didn't actually appear to work. The failed project cost taxpayers well over $230 million.
DHS had already pulled the plug on its SBInet program -- an effort to build a "virtual fence" of sensors, cameras and radar along the nation's border -- in January, after paying more than $1.1 billion. The Government Accountability Office, among others, had concluded that poor management and an over-reliance on the prime contractor, Boeing, had caused staggering delays and cost overruns while producing inadequate results.
And earlier in July, DHS had scrapped its unfinished and dysfunctional Risk Assessment Management Program, a computer application intended to help officials distribute their small army of private security guards between federal buildings, based on the chances of those buildings becoming terror targets. DHS had already shelled out $35 million over three years for a project that contractor Booz Allen had promised to complete in one year for $21 million. With the program axed, some eight years after DHS was founded, the department still isn't able to do something as basic as assess which federal buildings are more vulnerable to attack than others.
These are just a few of the most recent -- and in these cases, now staunched -- examples of how DHS has hemorrhaged money since its creation in 2003.
According to an estimate by Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller and Australian engineer Mark Stewart, the cumulative increase in U.S. domestic homeland security spending since the 9/11 terror attacks totals about $580 billion.
Critics of the department say its poor track record when it comes to the distribution of its considerable funds is directly related to how the department was formed: in a panic, out of a need for a grand political gesture -- and without a clear mission.
As Virginia Tech public policy professor Patrick Roberts wrote in the Review of Policy Research in 2005, the creation of DHS was "an example of the triumph of symbolic and distributive policies over more straightforward attempts to address the real problems of homeland security."
When it was formed, DHS absorbed 22 disparate agencies, cramming them into a single, 230,000-person mega-bureaucracy. Without a clear overall strategy, the grant money DHS was responsible for allocating went out to states regardless of their needs. Huge defense contractors took advantage of the easy funding to pitch untested products.
"It opened a floodgate of money for private industry to sell scanners and other devices," said Charles Perrow, a Yale sociology professor who has called the creation of DHS "The Disaster After 9/11."
"A lot of money was kind of thrown at the problem," said John Gannon, a former deputy director of the CIA who was part of the White House team that launched the department and who now leads BAE Systems' cybersecurity division.
Gannon blames what he called the "unfocused, unstrategic allocation of funds" on Congress, which he said failed to set a strategy for the department, then provided inadequate oversight. But the department also lacked the personnel to hold its contractors accountable.
"You certainly had an insufficient and an inexperienced contracting team," said former DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin. "And you certainly had rapacious contractors."
In 2006, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee identified 32 DHS contracts "collectively worth $34.3 billion that have been plagued by waste, abuse, or mismanagement" during the first five years after 9/11. In 2008, the House Committee on Homeland Security listed $15 billion in failed contracts since the department's founding.
Stories of smaller-scale DHS excesses have become the stuff of legend. One is the famous terror target list used to allocate DHS grant money. It listed 77,069 sites under possible threat, including the Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo in Woodville, Ala., the Amish Country Popcorn factory in Berne, Ind., and the Mule Day Parade in Columbia, Tenn.
The Los Angeles Times reported just last week that DHS grant money is still buying such things as state-of-the-art dive gear, cattle nose leads and electric prods for rural Nebraska counties and a nine-ton BearCat armored tactical assault vehicle for suburban Glendale, Calif.
"[T]he reality is that DHS is a colossal and inefficient boondoggle," Joan Johnson-Freese and Tom Nichols, both professors at the Naval War College, wrote this week for AOL Defense:
DHS was a panic reaction, a precipitous act by a Bush administration determined to show it was 'doing something' about terrorism. The horses had already escaped, but the Bush administration went ahead anyway and bought more land, constructed extra barns, equipped them with state-of-the-art doors, and then hired thousands of conscientious civil servants to slam them shut over and over again, for the rest of eternity.
DHS officials insist that the department is a proven success -- and is getting better all the time.
"Over the last year, year and a half, in particular, I think you've really begun to see the department begin to gel, in terms of working in a coordinated manner," said John Cohen, principal deputy counterterrorism coordinator at DHS.
"There are capabilities that now exist across this country that have made this country safer from potential attacks that would not exist without a department of homeland security," he said.
As for contracting, DHS officials said that Obama appointees have worked hard to improve the department's acquisition oversight. And Ervin, the former inspector general, among others, gives Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano credit for canceling some projects.
"It's important to acknowledge when you're throwing money down a rathole," Ervin said.
DHS could allocate its counterterrorism dollars more effectively by focusing on the areas of greatest risk -- regardless of the political consequences or the desires of powerful lobbyists.
But a 2010 study by the National Academy of Sciences found DHS had paid "little effective attention" to "features of the risk problem that are fundamental."
"Risk analysis capabilities with regard to areas beyond natural disasters ... are not yet adequate for supporting DHS decision-making," the study concluded.
Mueller, the OSU professor, thinks that's a serious problem. "You're dealing with human lives, and if you're spending money on foolish ways to save lives, and there are known ways to save lives and you're not spending money on that, then that's really irresponsible," he said.
Cohen, the DHS official, disputed the notion that the department doesn't pay enough attention to risk analysis.
"From my perspective, we leverage assessments of risk in everything we do," he said. "We are constantly evaluating risk and we do it through multiple entities."
Perrow, the Yale sociology professor, traces DHS's problems back to the department's inception. He argues what was needed after 9/11 in terms of domestic counterterrorism efforts was coordination, not centralization. Relevant federal agencies needed to share information and have clear goals; simply shoving them all together into one agency actually made things worse.
But politicians in Washington "never bought this," he said, because "they like to be in control."
"If you have a lot of money involved, you tend not to decentralize," he said. "You tend to keep control at the top." DHS may be too big to manage effectively, Perrow said, but that doesn't mean that its founders consider it a failure.
"If you have that control and hierarchy, then you can channel funding in the most politically productive manner," he said.
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Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.