When historians look back on the early part of the 21st century, they may be tempted to attribute the phrase “homeland security” and its patriotic connotation to former president George W. Bush. But the movement to create a Department of Homeland Security began when Bush was still governor of Texas. In 1998, a commission chaired by two former senators, Democrat Gary Hart and Republican Warren Rudman, examined the direction of U.S. national security after the Cold War. It concluded that the bewildering web of agencies scattered across the federal government responsible for national security – from border protection to domestic preparedness – needed to be consolidated into a single federal agency. A Republican congressman from Texas, Mac Thornberry, answered the call by introducing legislation months before Sept. 11 that would have paved the way for the new agency. The bill stalled without much attention – until the attacks. Then, one of the nation’s most prominent policymakers, hailing from Connecticut, helped pressure Bush’s White House into creating the sprawling DHS bureaucracy. Weeks after 9/11, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, then a Democrat, sponsored the formation of what he then called the Department of National Homeland Security. It didn’t evolve into a real cabinet-level agency until the following year resulting in the most dramatic overhaul of the federal government since Harry Truman formed the Department of Defense in 1947. “In my career in public service, I have never before seen disorganization so consequential and the case for change so compelling,” Lieberman wrote in a Sept. 2002 Washington Post op-ed during debate over the establishment of a homeland security department. Despite Lieberman’s notable role, the state of Connecticut isn’t above the same grant management problems other states have faced with anti-terrorism cash. Auditors last year raised questions about $2 million in spending from a pair of federal programs used by Connecticut’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to pay administrative staffers for preparedness planning and other activities. The state couldn’t prove those employees were performing work linked to the actual purpose of the grants, a key requirement designed to prevent local governments from simply shifting everyday payroll costs on to the feds. Connecticut officials promised they would do more to demonstrate that salaries and fringe benefits covered with federal money were for grant-related work. They’d made identical assurances the year before, however. Our attempt to obtain detailed grant spending records from Connecticut officials was moderately successful. The only computer file made available in electronic format showed individual purchases the state made on behalf of local communities between 2005 and 2009. A spokeswoman said the Excel spreadsheet, which you can download below, represents about 60 percent of Connecticut’s total expenditures during that period, but it doesn’t list equipment prices. Remaining information in the state’s possession is mostly limited to paper records. Lieberman now chairs the powerful Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversaw the new federal department’s birth. His promise that multiple agencies in charge of securing the nation would operate seamlessly and efficiently alongside one another has been compromised by contract boondoggles, legacy law enforcement offices that continue to quarrel, low employee morale and frequent allegations of corruption among agents guarding the southwest border with Mexico. Policymakers on the committee representing small states, including Lieberman, have stubbornly clashed over funding priorities with the likes of California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who argues that homeland security grants should be distributed based on where threats are likelier to exist. On a per-capita basis, states such as Connecticut frequently outpace New York, California and others in total cash received irking critics who have called the spending pork. The committee also set off on a shaky start when for nearly two years it held up the full appointment of former Inspector General Clark Ervin, a critical watchdog over the Department of Homeland Security’s spending and operations. Ervin became an outspoken antagonist of the committee, as well as the department’s leadership, and aggressively exposed wasteful contracts and security lapses. Lieberman refused repeated meeting invitations to discuss his work, Ervin revealed in a 2006 book about his experience, Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack. “I’m no seer, and I’m no genius,” he wrote, “but it did not take much foresight or insight to see that this new agency, with billions of dollars to spend, under tight congressional deadlines and immense political pressure to do something as quickly as possible to make the homeland more secure, would be targeted by rapacious contractors like buzzards homing in on carrion.” The Bush White House declined to reappoint Ervin in late 2004.
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.More by G.W. Schulz