Since its creation in March 2003, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has created an immense immigration database that is now integrated with the FBI’s criminal database, all of which is now shared with local law-enforcement officials. The resulting information system is the main instrument of the immigrant crackdown that is detaining and deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants, and legal immigrants who have criminal records.
But when it comes to protecting the homeland, the massive DHS information and intelligence-sharing system is largely dysfunctional. Even within the special DHS division to fuse federal, local, and private information, the system fails to share information and intelligence.
The failure of DHS to prevent an attempted act of terrorism by a Nigerian man linked to al-Qaeda led to criticisms that the information clearinghouse system created by DHS is systemically flawed. But warnings began far before the highly publicized failure on Dec. 25. A November report by DHS’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) on the department’s National Operations Center (NOC) came to that conclusion by just talking to the NOC staff.
The study’s two central conclusions present a blistering criticism of the blundering department. According to the OIG:
- “NOC is negatively affected by organizational issues such as not having requisite authority, ambiguities in its mission, and an unclear chain of command.”
- “The overall focus of the NOC shifts between emergency management, terrorism prevention, and law enforcement.”
Over the past seven years DHS has come under repeated criticism from its own inspector general, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and an array of congressional oversight committees for its system failures.
Most of the criticism of DHS has centered on its obvious inability to exercise effective oversight and management of its multiple agencies and its deep-seated reliance on private contractors, even for oversight functions. In addition, the media, human rights organizations, and immigrant support organizations have leveled harsh criticism against DHS for its abuse-ridden immigrant detention system.
The DHS has had a ready excuse for its failures, namely that it is a new department that has taken on the mammoth task of cobbling together the operations of 22 agencies into one integrated department.
Year after year, DHS officials have told congressional oversight committees that its oversight failures and contractor reliance are products of the rush to get a new department up and running. This oft-repeated excuse routinely comes with the oft-repeated promise that it will do better.
But it hasn’t done better, as the OIG report on the National Operations Center makes startlingly clear.
National Operations Center Isn’t Operational
The National Operations Center is the department’s second attempt to create a homeland security information center.
NOC was established in May 2006 as the successor to DHS’s much-criticized Homeland Security Operations Center and in the wake of the DHS’s failed responses to Hurricane Katrina. It is a division of DHS’s Office of Operations Coordination and Planning (OPS), which, according to DHS, “is responsible for monitoring the daily security of the United States.”
NOC’s mission is to “facilitate information sharing and operational coordination” with federal, state, and local agencies with the objective of providing “domestic situation awareness” to senior DHS officials and to the White House.
As part of that mission, the National Operations Center is mandated to provide DHS and White House leadership with “a common operating picture, information fusion, information sharing, communications, and coordination pertaining to domestic-incident management and prevention of terrorism.”
The OIG report on NOC highlights the bureaucratic dysfunction that pervades the unwieldy DHS bureaucracy. By doing so, the study raises nagging questions about the wisdom of having a government department that combines such diverse functions as emergency response, immigration enforcement, transportation security, the Coast Guard, and domestic counterterrorism.
The study also underscores DHS’s structural dependence on private contractors.
Although heavily redacted, the report is studded with alarming observations and conclusions, including the following:
- “Some contractors may be performing inherently governmental functions,” such as overseeing other contractors.
- Although combining law enforcement, emergency management, and intelligence expertise, it doesn’t possess “operational capabilities.” One NOC official told the OIG that “the center is operational only in name, and does not have the capabilities or authority to direct DHS component resources or personnel.”
- Other DHS agencies routinely ignore NOC and are “charting their own course,” according one NOC official.
- Another NOC official said that government officials rely more heavily on entities external to DHS, such as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI’s National Joint Terrorism Task Force, for information and intelligence.
- Some NOC personnel said that after Hurricane Katrina the center has “become an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” and they contend that the change has diminished the ability of all NOC personnel to respond to terrorist threats.
- Despite the renaming and revamping of the Homeland Security Operations Center and the creation of the new intelligence center in 2006, “no formal plans or training programs were in place to facilitate the NOC reorganization.”
- NOC’s two divisions—intelligence and operations—are badly split, paralyzing the agency. “Another desk officer said the Intelligence and Operations sides play in different worlds, and 90% of what I&A [Intelligence and Analysis] knows, the SWOs [Senior Watch Officers] do not know.”
- Senior Watch Officers, who are responsible for briefing DHS leadership on potential domestic and international incidents that may affect national security, “are not receiving the necessary information to brief DHS senior leadership.”
DHS has accepted a series of 17 OIG recommendations to remedy the array of problems examined in the report.
But the report does not question the central issue of the advisability of the very existence of the DHS. The last seven years of DHS failures and its lack of focus raise persistent questions about having one department that under the mission of homeland security includes such a diversity of functions.
Nor does the study question the advisability of involving the new department in local law enforcement through its network of fusion centers.
Given the vast array of its responsibilities—including border security, disaster response, counterterrorism intelligence, immigration enforcement, infrastructure protection, aviation security, etc.—it is little wonder that its National Operations Center is confused, divided, and dysfunctional.
Information and Intelligence Outsourcing at Homeland Security
The Department of Homeland Security has outsourced intelligence, detention, communications, and even oversight functions. Its National Operations Center, designed as the government’s information clearinghouse on homeland threats, is one of the department’s chief outsourcers.
In large part the over-reliance on private contractors has led to system failures in such DHS projects as SBInet (the chronically mismanaged, over-budget, and unproven virtual fence), the Coast Guard’s Deepwater project, and its dysfunctional information system about homeland threats.
Since the department’s creation in March 2003 DHS officials have continuously promised congressional oversight committees that the department would reduce its dependence on private contractors as it consolidated. But little has improved and outsourcing is rising.
In a recent interview with federaltimes.com, David Mauer, a homeland security director at the Government Accountability Office, said that the GAO has had DHS “on our high-risk list since day one.” While DHS is promising more procurement oversight officers—as it has been over the past several years—the department has delegated many of its central responsibilities to private contractors and has not established any clear guidelines on what is a departmental function that should be kept in-house.
The report by the DHS Office of Inspector General on the department’s National Operations Center criticizes the department for the NOC’s basic inability to function effectively because of a lack of an overall plan, deep divisions, and its changing focus. While the study didn’t target the outsourcing problem, it did offer a revealing, shocking glimpse at the degree to which outsourcing pervades operations within the department that are central to homeland protection.
The NOC, according to the GAO, “relies heavily on contractor staff to perform its mission functions.” Since FY 2006 the DHS’s information-sharing center’s use of contractors has increased 195%.
Sixty-two percent—about $11.2 million—of the NOC’s FY 2009 budget is designated for contract support. That compares to the $3.8 million spent by the DHS for contract support in 2003 for similar functions.
One Senior Watch Officer at NOC told the OIG that contractors were needed in the department’s first three years as it was organizing, but that these positions should have been subsequently replaced with full-time federal employees. According to this SWO, the contractors’ technical expertise is not as important as stated by management, and many of the contractors’ jobs could be performed by lower-paid government employees.
Another desk officer said that only a few NOC employees are federal employees and that most are contractors. According to the OIG, this “may indicate that some contractors are performing inherently governmental functions.”
The NOC contracts for the communications watch officer, knowledge management officer, fusion desk officer, tracker, HSIN desk officer, incident management desk officer, and media monitoring desk officer positions, and for a NOC senior adviser.
Within NOC “one contractor has program manager responsibilities and oversees seven NOC functions: the fusion desk, the tracker, the knowledge management officer, the representative, the secretary’s briefing staff, the chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear desk, the explosive incidents desk, and the state and local law enforcement desks.”
CACI, Boeing, and Others Running Homeland Security’s Information Systems
CACI International, a company that says it specializes in the “new defense era” and “asymmetric warfare,” is the top private contractor at NOC, and is joined by Boeing and Unisys, along with such consulting firms as Engineering Consultants Service, Electronic Consulting Services, and Security Assistance Corporation.
CACI, which relies on the federal government for 96% of its revenues and does 40% of its federal work for the intelligence community, has won three contracts for communications operations support for NOC. CACI, which was implicated by the U.S. Army for the involvement of its contracted interrogators in the Abu Ghraib prison abuses in Iraq, is facing a lawsuit by the Center for Constitutional Rights for torturing Iraqis.
Illustrative of the central role that private contractors play in the most fundamental information-gathering, intelligence assessment, and management operations of DOC is the following job announcement by DHS contractor Engineering Systems Consultants.
The consulting firm advertised that it was “seeking an Incident Management Officer (IMO) Desk Support. The IMO will supports (sic) the Senior Watch Officer (SWO) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Operations Center (NOC) by providing senior leadership and other elements of DHS with situational awareness of incidents, events, or concerns impacting the United States or its interests.”
Among the specific duties of this contract employee:
- “Provides baseline analysis, assessments, and threat monitoring, while sharing information to help deter, detect, and prevent terrorist acts and to manage domestic incidents.
- “Cultivate cooperative relationships with officials of different agencies (state, territory, district, and tribal Directors of Homeland Security, Emergency Operation Centers, and Law Enforcement).
- “Produce and publish the National Operations Center Initial Incident and Update Reports for all National and International Situation Summary’s (sic) and ensuring (sic) that the developed products are posted to the National Common Operating Picture (COP).
- “Write and publish the DHS Situation Reports and Executive Summary’s (sic).”
The OIG report noted that a review to determine what should be considered “inherently governmental functions” at DHS was “outside the scope of this review.” It added, though, that “we believe the issue warrants further attention by our office.”
It is also an issue that merits further attention by the Obama administration.
Unless the administration acts to substantially reduce DHS dependence on private contractors and to review the wisdom of creating such an unwieldy, unfocused, and money-drain of a department, the continuing failures of the Bush-created DHS in intelligence, detention policy, information systems, and domestic counterterrorism will be part of its own legacy.
For More Information
Tom Barry, “Bigger and Badder Than Blackwater,” Border Lines
Not Systemic Failure, But Failed System
New National Security Complex:
Bringing Together Homeland Security, Intelligence, and Defense