Growing scope of DHS' mission raises concerns

Former Secretary Tom Ridge says agency has 'kind of lost their way'


April 27--WASHINGTON -- In November 2002, 14 months after terrorists slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, President George W. Bush signed a bill into law establishing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The department's objective was simple, even if its task was not.

"The primary mission of the department is to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States; reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism; minimize the damage, and assist in the recovery from terrorist attacks that do occur within the United States," the new law said.

The statute also specified that the Department of Homeland Security would respond to natural or human-caused disasters and monitor connections between drug traffickers and terrorists while coordinating efforts to "sever" such ties.

More than 11 years later, the department's mission has expanded -- greatly.

Today, in addition to protecting America's borders and airports, the department is interrogating people suspected of pirating movies at Ohio theaters, seizing counterfeit NBA merchandise in San Antonio and working pickpocket cases alongside police in Albuquerque. Homeland Security agents are visiting elementary schools and senior centers to warn of dangers lurking on the Internet.

Some government watchdogs and civil liberties advocates -- and even the nation's first Department of Homeland Security secretary -- question how those actions serve the purpose set forth in the 2002 law.

"They've kind of lost their way," former Secretary Tom Ridge told the Journal in Washington this month. "I was proud to be associated with those men and women, but it just seems to me ... the focus -- the primary focus -- has been substantially diminished."

Meanwhile, a top Homeland Security official in Albuquerque said the department wants to enlarge its law enforcement presence -- at least in New Mexico -- even more.

"I really do want to expand the footprint as far as my side of Homeland Security," said Kevin Abar, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New Mexico, in a Journal interview.

"Too many people think we do immigration, and we don't really do any of that at all."

Homeland Security Investigations falls under the jurisdiction of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and focuses "on a wide range of domestic and international activities" including financial and cyber crimes, narcotics, human smuggling and other offenses, according to the DHS website. The investigations unit has 10,000 employees and 6,700 special agents assigned to more than 200 U.S. cities and 47 foreign countries.

Size, scope of DHS

Today, the Department of Homeland Security is the third-largest agency in the federal government, behind only the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense.

When created in 2002, DHS merged 22 pre-existing federal agencies into one, marking the largest reorganization of the federal government in more than 50 years. Among the agencies included under the Homeland Security umbrella are the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, Secret Service, Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In the first year of its existence, the Department of Homeland Security employed 180,000 full-time workers. Today, 240,000 people collect paychecks from the agency, according to its website.

The department's budget has more than doubled since the agency's inception in 2003, when it spent $29 billion. This year, DHS is slated to spend $61 billion. The department's spending request for 2015 is about $60 billion, a $1 billion reduction from current-year spending -- and a nod to the constricted federal budget climate.

Janet Napolitano, an Albuquerque native who served as the nation's third secretary of homeland security during the first 4 { years of President Barack Obama's time in office, is now president of the University of California. Through a university spokesman, Napolitano declined to be interviewed for this series.

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