Congressional auditors gave a stinging assessment of the Homeland Security Department's progress and said the department could not take credit for the absence of a terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.
The department's primary mission is to prevent such a strike to and minimize the damage should an attack occur. Auditors said the U.S. is safer than it was that day in 2001, but the department has poorly managed its mission over the past four years.
"I don't think we can take comfort in the fact, necessarily, that we haven't had another attack," Government Accountability Office Comptroller General David Walker told senators Thursday, just five days before the sixth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Vague shifting criteria?
In a 320-page report, the GAO identified 171 performance expectations and found the department achieved fewer than half since it formed four years ago. Experts, including auditors, have said it would take a department this large five years to seven years to come together.
Auditors also noted that the Defense Department, created after World War II, still faces serious management challenges. "I'm confident DHS can do better faster," Walker said.
Homeland Security officials disagreed with many of the findings, which they said were based on vague and shifting criteria.
"The department continues to believe that they used a flawed methodology in preparing its report," said Paul A. Schneider, the undersecretary for management.
Schneider said the measurements do not account for programs that never were expected to be completed in four years, such as a border security initiative. The department has deployed 6,000 National Guard members to the border and has hired more than 5,000 additional border patrol agents since 2001.
Auditors found maritime security to be the only area where the department made significant progress. Walker attributed this to strong congressional oversight and increased funding.
Auditors found DHS has not made adequate progress in these areas:
- Identifying the spots where people illegally cross the border into the country.
- Removing criminal aliens and establishing a strategy to prevent human smuggling.
- Setting standards and procedures for security along the outer perimeter of airports.
- Issuing standards for securing non-aviation transportation.
- Establishing a single, all-hazards plan to respond to disasters.
- Coordinating research and development of countermeasures for chemical, biological, nuclear and other terrorist threats.
During congressional testimony Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defended the department's progress.
"But if you ask me is the job of keeping us safe done, the answer to that is no," Chertoff said. "It is not done. And it may not be done within our lifetimes."