Nearly a decade ago, the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon set off a chain of events that altered the world views of government officials and nearly every American. The prospect of a catastrophic, even apocalyptic, assault on the United States was no longer a fear but suddenly a reality.

One of the most notable results was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, an amalgamation of 22 other federal agencies that was given an unprecedented reach into our society – and unprecedented power. No one disputes the extraordinary transnational risks the country faces from terrorists, criminal organizations and rogue states. But seven years after the department’s creation, the merits of that decision remain an open question, as evidence of fraud, waste and mismanagement mounts almost daily.

Elevated Risk, the newest blog at the Center for Investigative Reporting, will serve a very old-fashioned journalism role: shining light on a government agency that too often operates with little or no public scrutiny.

Our name for the blog is inspired by the color-coded terror advisory system conceived by the Bush Administration to notify the public when the likelihood of an attack has increased, or, on the other hand, decreased. But adjusting the advisory downward at any time to green (low) or even blue (guarded) still seems politically inconceivable today.

The nation has thus remained in a virtually endless state of elevated risk, or yellow, meaning national security authorities believe there is a “significant risk of terrorist attacks” day and night. So we’re committed to digging deep, holding the Department of Homeland Security to account and addressing both its failures and successes. Our aim is for every post to be a fair assessment of one of the federal government’s most important agencies.

We recognize this is no small task. The Homeland Security Department has become a powerful federal bureaucracy with a budget request in 2011 totaling more than $56 billion and 188,000 civilian employees. It’s also one of the government’s biggest business partners with the private sector relying on more than 200,000 contract employees. The department is a massive, dynamic case study in the challenges and perils of hastily conceived privatization efforts.

Our approach will be simple – asking questions and seeking answers from officials, documents and sources.

It’s time, for example, to ask: Why did a Terrorist Screening Center, thousands of additional airport security officers, behavior detection specialists, ambitious technology investments and multiple intelligence-gathering operations not stop a young radical from nearly killing 290 people on Christmas Day in 2009?

Why are state and federal authorities still struggling to respond to natural disasters after the federal government handed out more than $30 billion in preparedness grants?

What happened to the high-tech surveillance system that was supposed to guard the country’s southern border? The Obama Administration embraced the plan to line the border with fences, remote sensors and surveillance cameras at a cost of hundreds of millions. Then, just weeks ago, the administration showed signs that it was bailing out.

The litany of department missteps is an embarrassment.

– The $9 million spent on ice that FEMA allowed to melt on a Texas airfield.
– The $110 million in spending on conferences over a three-year stretch.
– The tens of millions spent on technology that sits unused in warehouses across the country.
– The inability to install a leader at the head of the Transportation Security Administration.

And it’s time to ask if Americans are giving away too many freedoms central to their identities as U.S. citizens in exchange for costly and intrusive security programs that may not protect them.

Our blog will watchdog the Department of Homeland Security’s daily operations and spending. We are determined to be accurate, fair and, hopefully, always engaging. At a time when resources for investigative journalism are fading away, we are dedicated to keeping watch.

The country needs to protect itself from very real, very lethal threats. But we also have to be on guard against mismanagement, waste and, sadly, people taking advantage of the nation’s fear for their own personal gain.

We hope you will keep watch with us here – and help whenever and however you can. Contact us with questions and tips at gwschulz@cironline.org. We will maintain absolute confidentiality for anyone requesting it.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.