The Case for Abolishing the DHS
Posted by: Charles Kenny on July 15, 2013
On Friday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano resigned to take
up a post running California's university system. With her departure, there
are now 15 vacant positions at the top of the department. That suggests it
would be a particularly humane moment to shut the whole thing down. The U.S.
Department of Homeland Security was a panicked reaction to the Sept. 11
attacks. It owes its continued existence to a vastly exaggerated assessment
of the threat of terrorism. The department is also responsible for some of
the least cost-effective spending in the U.S. government. It's time to admit
that creating it was a mistake.
In 2002 the George W. Bush administration presented a budget request for
massively increased spending on homeland security, at that point coordinated
out of the Office of Homeland Security. "A new wave of terrorism, involving
new weapons, looms in America's future," the White House said. "It is a
challenge unlike any ever faced by our nation." In proposing a new
cabinet-level agency, Bush said, "The changing nature of the threats facing
America requires a new government structure to protect against invisible
enemies that can strike with a wide variety of weapons." Because of
"experience gained since Sept. 11 and new information we have learned about
our enemies while fighting a war," the president concluded that "our nation
needs a more unified homeland security structure."
More than a decade later, it's increasingly clear that the danger to
Americans posed by terrorism remains smaller than that of myriad other
threats, from infectious disease to gun violence to drunk driving. Even in
2001, considerably more Americans died of drowning than from terror attacks.
Since then, the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack in
the U.S. or abroad have been about one in 20 million. The Boston marathon
bombing was evil and tragic, but it's worth comparing the three deaths in
that attack to a list of the number of people in the U.S. killed by guns
since the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn., which stood at 6,078 as
This low risk isn't evidence that homeland security spending has worked:
It's evidence that the terror threat was never as great as we thought. A
rather pathetic Heritage Foundation list of 50 terrorist plots against the
U.S. foiled since Sept. 11 includes such incidents as a plan to use a
blowtorch to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge and "allegedly lying about
attending a terrorist training center"-but nothing involving weapons of mass
destruction. Further, these are alleged plots. The list of plausible plots,
let alone actual crimes, is considerably smaller. From 2005 to 2010, federal
attorneys declined (PDF) to bring any charges against 67 percent of alleged
terrorism-related cases referred to them from law enforcement agencies.
That hasn't stopped a bonanza of spending. Homeland security agencies got
about $20 billion in the 2002 budget. That rose to about $60 billion (PDF)
this year. Given that spending is motivated by such an elusive threat, it's
no surprise a lot is wasted. The grants made by DHS to states and cities to
improve preparedness are notorious for being distributed with little
attention to either risk or effectiveness. As an example, economist
Veronique de Rugy has highlighted the $557,400 given to North Pole, Alaska,
(population 1,570), for homeland security rescue and communications
equipment. "If power companies invested in infrastructure the way DHS and
Congress fight terrorism, a New Yorker wouldn't be able to run a hair dryer,
but everyone in Bozeman, Mont., could light up a stadium," de Rugy
Or take the U.S. Coast Guard-which recently got in hot water with the U.S.
Government Accountability Office because it was 10 years into a 25-year, $24
billion overhaul to build or upgrade its 250 vessels, had spent $7 billion
on the project, and had only two new ships in the water to show for it.
Reassuringly, the head of the Coast Guard admitted, "We weren't prepared to
start spending this money and supervising a project this big."
The DHS also runs the U.S. Secret Service, an agency that just spent an
estimated $100 million guarding a weeklong presidential trip to Africa. That
would be more than the entire economic output of Tanzania during Barack
Obama's visit. The Secret Service traveled around the continent with 56
vehicles, including three trucks full of bulletproof glass. The cancellation
of a planned Obama family safari at least meant there was no need for the
assault team armed with high-caliber rounds against the threat of
The problem with DHS is bigger than a bloated budget misspent. An overweight
DHS gets a free pass to infringe civil liberties without a shred of economic
justification. John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State
University, notes that the agency has routinely refused to carry out
cost-benefit analyses on expensive and burdensome new procedures, including
scanning every inbound shipping container or installing full-body scanners
in airports-despite being specifically asked to do so by the GAO. Again,
it's unsurprising that the result of a free hand in enforcement has been
excessive and counterproductive security measures, as I've argued before:
like TSA agents taking away a GI Joe doll's four-inch plastic gun because it
was "a replica," and deterring so many passengers from airline travel that
more than 100 people have died on the roads because they substituted a
dangerous means of transportation (driving) for a safe one (flying).
Not all of the department's activities are similarly high-cost, low benefit.
About a quarter of its budget goes to the Federal Emergency Management
Agency, for example. FEMA has apparently done a better job after Hurricane
Sandy than it did after Katrina flooded swaths of New Orleans. But both
events occurred when FEMA was under the department's umbrella, and neither
had anything to do with terrorism-so the benefit of lumping its operations
in with the Secret Service under one cabinet secretary is unclear.
The U.S. government clearly has a responsibility to control who and what
comes in and out of the country as well as to ensure travel is safe from
violent attack. But all of the bureaucratic consolidation, additional
regulation, and unchecked spending of the past 12 years have served to make
trade and travel harder, with little benefit. And DHS has helped create
institutional inertia: Its very existence suggests the domestic response to
the threat of terror is of equal weight with defense, transport, health,
labor, or foreign affairs. It heaps largesse on a range of contractors, all
of whom have an interest in hyping the threat of terror to ensure the money
That's unfortunate. Beyond the waste of money and the overregulation, the
expansion of the homeland security state has created unnecessary fear among
a population that should be able to trust its government to send accurate
signals about risk. So let's start sending the right signals. Shut down the
DHS, and redistribute the agencies under its umbrella back to other
departments, including the justice, transportation, and energy departments.
Then start bringing their budgets into some sort of alignment with the
benefit they provide.
Treating the terror threat with the contempt it deserves would be good for
the deficit and the economy, and a relief for anyone who travels. If that
let us focus on bigger dangers instead, it might even save some lives.
Closing the DHS is a small government solution that works.
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