Alex Massie

We already have the NHS, do we need a DHS too?

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Earlier this year Con Coughlin argued in The Spectator:

Clearly there is a need for the government to get a firm grip on all the various security challenges that might come our way, which is why there has been much talk at the Cabinet Office, which is overseeing the review, of establishing a National Security Council along the lines of the body in Washington that advises the White House on security policy — both short-term and long-term...

A better alternative might be to set up our own Homeland Security Department — represented by a minister of Cabinet rank — which would have responsibility for ensuring proper protection of our borders and joined-up liaison between the various bodies responsible for intelligence and security issues.

The aftermath of the 7 July bombings demonstrated that, for all the billions of pounds of extra resources that had been thrown at the various agencies responsible for protecting the country from terrorist attack, a breakdown in communication allowed suspects who were briefly under surveillance to fall off the radar, and reappear to commit Britain’s worst post-war atrocity a couple of years later.

A truism often repeated among the intelligence and security establishment is that people only focus on their failures, not their successes, and it doesn’t matter how many terrorist attacks they manage to prevent, they will always take the flak for the ones that get through.

And this is how it should be. What is the point of spending billions of pounds towards improving the effectiveness of the nation’s counter-intelligence operations if someone who is identified as a potential suspect, as happened in the case of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the 7 July bombings, is somehow able to slip through the net? A Homeland Security Department would mean such errors were not repeated.

Well perhaps. It's true that the Americans' inability to create a fit for purpose DHS doesn't in itself mean Whitehall could not do better. But let's just say that the government's record in this sort of infrastructure project is, how to put it?, less than reassuring.

As Megan says:

Homeland security is the conservative version of the national healthcare plans I keep reading. Sure, in theory this new agency is going to make us all safer. But the plans all seem to rely on the interest group politics, bureaucratic dysfunction, and congressional power games that have produced the immense problems in our current system somehow magically disappearing. Instead, the thing gets more expensive, and less efficient. Perhaps the theory is that if they waste enough money, we won't have anything left worth destroying.

Miss McArdle cites an excellent (and short!) new paper from George Mason University's invaluable Veronique de Rugy which notes  that for all the ballooning DHS expenditure:

Like most agencies, DHS measures its success in terms of output rather than outcome. For instance, with homeland security grants to the states, DHS will point out the amount of funding that the federal government sent to the various states. It does not attempt to measure the return on these dollars.

But even when DHS reports results, it does it in a way that does not tell us much about the effectiveness of a given program.

For example:

TSA will receive $7.1 billion this year, most of which it will spend on screeners at all US airports. However, the probability of attacks in the style of 9/11 dropped close to zero in the few months after the attacks when airlines installed—at relatively low cost—simple cockpit barricades. In theory then, another 9/11 type of attack cannot happen. Since September 2001, however, screening every bag of every airline passenger to prevent another 9/11 type of attack will cost taxpayers over $34 billion by the end of FY2009.  Furthermore, screening checked bags does not necessarily reduce the probability of the destruction of airplanes since screeners do not systematically check carry-on bags, air freight, or people for explosives.


Unfortunately, many studies have shown that the government is using a substantial portion of new homeland security spending for politically motivated items that are unlikely to have any effect on terrorism.  Six years after the 9/11 attacks, homeland security contains as much pork barrel spending as any program in Congress. Both Congress and the states spend homeland security grants on pet projects that have nothing to do with homeland security. As state officials fight over who will get the biggest share of the money and Congress fights yesterday’s battles, who is planning for tomorrow?

Is there any good reason to suppose a British DHS would not be equally monstrous, wasteful and ineffective?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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