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 of June.
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 complained.
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 Taliban-sympathizing cheetahs.
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 keeps flowing.
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.