By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 6/24/2005 12:48:41 AM ET 2005-06-24T04:48:41

Major changes could be in store for the massive Department of Homeland Security when the results of a long awaited top-to-bottom review of the agency’s mission, procedures and personnel are unveiled as soon as next week.

Department Secretary Michael Chertoff ordered the 60-day review when he took over from Tom Ridge. Eighteen teams will report on their “observations about where we have achieved, what we need to achieve, where we have fallen short, what our gaps are and how we might think of solutions, outcomes that would address those gaps,” Chertoff said Thursday at a meeting with the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

“I’ve now begun the process of meeting with the groups and talking through some of the solutions and starting to task out things we might do to report on this,” Chertoff said.  “I anticipate that I will have completed this process basically by the end of this month.  And then as we move forward, I think we’ll begin to see the fruits of this process.”

Although DHS is just 2 1/2 years old, it’s drawn its share of criticism, both from the private sector and from Congress, for everything from cumbersome airline passenger screening procedures to its inability to funnel money to state and local homeland security agencies to its color-coded terror threat alert system.

Chertoff made it clear from the beginning of the review than everything in the department, from how it purchases office supplies to procedures for screening cargo and passengers to the terror alert system were on the table for change.

Two weeks ago Chertoff signaled his department would shift to focusing on thwarting potentially catastrophic events — such as nuclear, chemical or biological attacks — and lean more heavily on state and local officials or the private sector to pick up the slack in other areas, such as infrastructure security. 

“We are not going to protect everyone from everything bad,” Chertoff told a congressional panel on June 9.

Not starting from scratch
Although Chertoff inherited an agency in the midst of some turmoil, he also inherited a basic blueprint for change from Ridge.

Before leaving office, Ridge’s senior management team drafted “a fairly lengthy list of recommendations” that included the creation of a centralized policy shop, Ridge said last month during a panel discussion at American University that included several former DHS officials. 

Ridge agreed with Chertoff’s move to review the agency he was first to oversee and readily acknowledged its shortcomings. “We'd be the first ones to admit we got the department as configured by Congress, not exactly as we proposed it. But that's the way it works," he said. 

The law that created DHS by merging 22 federal agencies with a combined work force of 180,000 didn’t establish a central, unified policy department, Ridge said. In turn, divisions under Ridge’s guidance often developed their own ad hoc policies that were at odds with another department or other federal agencies. 

“You need a robust policy shop right into the deputy secretary and the secretary for strategic planning," Ridge said.

Among Chertoff’s other top considerations:

  • Merging the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement with the Customs and Border Protection division.
  • Stripping the Transportation Security Administration down to just being responsible for airline and passenger screening.
  • Major policy changes to emphasize better “supply chain” control, putting more resources into controlling security at points of departure for cargo containers bound for the U.S.
  • Purchasing and contracting reforms for a $38.5 billion departmental budget that has been soundly criticized by its own inspector general for dubious and wasteful spending.

Managing the culture clash
Along with merging the missions of different agencies, DHS also had to merge very different cultures.  It hasn’t been an easy task.

“I think it’s obviously a tremendous challenge,” Chertoff said Thursday during the advisory council meeting, “to bring a lot of disparate organizations together with strong cultures and make them serve as one culture.” 

Chertoff said he was looking at “a number of things” to move that process along.  “I think there are some things we can do organizationally to integrate the department and to give people an understanding and show in practice how all of the pieces fit together,” he said.

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