Department of Homeland Security

After the September 11 attacks, the Bush Administration decided to take definitive domestic action by revamping its security apparatus. President George W. Bush believed that one way to make the nation safer from future attacks was to streamline the government structure by combining several departments under one umbrella cabinet-level organization, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Bush proposed the new agency in June 2002, and it was created in March 2003. The first Secretary of Homeland Security was former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge.

Among the government agencies that were gathered under the Homeland Security umbrella were the U.S. Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Transportation Security Administration, the Office for Domestic Preparedness, the Environmental Measurements Laboratory, and the Nuclear Incident Research Team. The Secret Service and the U.S. Coast Guard were also located in the Department of Homeland Security, although remaining intact as agencies.

DHS developed a six-point agenda to ensure that its “policies, operations, and structures are aligned in the best way to address the potential threats—both present and future—that face our nation.” The department’s’s agenda includes:

  • Increasing overall preparedness, especially for catastrophic events.
  • Creating and implementing better transportation security to move people and goods more securely.
  • Strengthening border security and reforming the immigration process.
  • Improve the sharing of information with other agencies.
  • Making sound financial management, human resource development, and information technology top priorities.
  • Making sure that the organization’s structure makes the best and most efficient use of its resources.

An example of DHS’s proactive agenda is its work with other cabinet agencies to make the nation’s borders more secure. DHS worked with the State Department and the Department of Justice to create the Terrorist Screening Center, which coordinates terrorist watchlist information across all government agencies, thus making it harder for potential terrorists to sneak into the U.S. as ordinary tourists. Tied to this is the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center, which aims to thwart human smugglers, traffickers, and those who facilitate terrorist travel. DHS and the State Department have reached out to foreign governments to assist in creating an exchange of watchlists and other information that could curb terrorist travel. While screening terrorists out is important, so is tourism and business and educational travel. DHS has recommended extending the length of student visas from 90 days to 120 days and to allow students to enter the country 45 days before their studies begin instead of 30 days. Also DHS worked with the State department to streamline the application process for business and temporary worker visas. A new Business Visa Center helps U.S. businesses that have upcoming travel or events that require people to travel to the United States. At American embassies and consulates in more than 100 countries, DHS has worked to expedite business visas, in part wit the help of local Chambers of Commerce.

As with the PATRIOT Act, there have been critics of DHS’s procedures and progress. Systems that were meant to streamline travel have sometimes made travel, even domestic travel, more problematic. The five-color Alert System, meant to let citizens know the current terror threat level based on possible terrorist activity, did not move the public to feel more secure; a disaster readiness program that advocated the use of duct tape to seal windows against poisons likewise did not encourage the public. Yet DHS also introduced US-VISIT, which screens foreign passengers through an integrated database system that spits individuals with criminal histories or possible terrorist connections. From the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2005, more than 45 million people were processed through US-VISIT, more than 970 were intercepted based on their data, and no terrorist attacks took place on U.S. soil.

Inside Department of Homeland Security