By Kristen M. Daum
WASHINGTON -- Five years. More than $200 billion. And 22 government agencies combined.
Even with such time and resources, it's debatable how much difference the Department of Homeland Security has made in protecting America in a post-9/11 world.
The department's progress remains a popular topic in the partisan divide - even as government officials honor DHS' fifth anniversary this week. Yet, when assessing the department's effectiveness since its formation in 2003, experts from both parties agree much more can be done.
President George W. Bush acknowledged the anniversary yesterday, saying, "Before 9/11, there was no single department of government charged with protecting the homeland, so we undertook the most sweeping reorganization of the federal government since the start of the Cold War ... with a clear mission: secure America and protect the American people."
The department was meant to bring a more cohesive approach to national security, by combining into one department 22 separate agencies with nearly 200,000 employees. Yet Republicans and Democrats repeatedly have used it as a political football in debating how America should combat terrorism.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) serves as the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee and said the department has taken great strides to improve defenses.
"It's been very effective," King said, stressing increased law enforcement cooperation.
Congress approved a total of $206.6 billion for the department's budget during the past five years. New York received more than $2 billion of that and the money's been "absolutely essential" for training programs, technology and overall defense for New York City and Long Island, King said.
Fellow New Yorker, Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, however, chastises Homeland Security as "one of the least effective, least efficient agencies. It has been too fractured and too unfocused to execute its mission," Schumer said.
But to talk in terms of success or failure doesn't help improve the department, said James Jay Carafano, a homeland security expert with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
"You have to look at trends," Carafano said. "The first two years of the department were wasted in terms of progress ... until [Secretary Michael] Chertoff came on board and did his second stage review. That's almost the start of the program getting its act together."
Carafano said congressional mandates meant to improve DHS have stalled its growth. "More change is simply going to slow the process," he said. "What Congress really needs to do is take a chill pill and stop trying to reorganize the department."
Another expert called the department a "grand theory that fell down in practice" - because it wrongly assumed 22 agencies could successfully work together under the same roof.
"The value gained has not been much - if at all," said Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security and a former Bill Clinton staffer. "I don't think we're where we need to be or where we could be."
King argued that constant criticisms undercut how the department has improved since 2003.
"It's too easy to take cheap shots," he said. "... It's not perfect, but it's going in the right direction."
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