Friday, May 06, 2005

The War on (T)error

Earlier this year the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General decided it was no longer going notify the press when it issues a report. In other words, the IG’s office would quietly post the reports to its site (as required by Federal law), shut its eyes tight and hope no one noticed.

I bet you didn’t know that the DHS has an Inspector General’s office that issues regular reports on fraud, waste, and mismanagement in the fight against terror. And if you’ve ever read any of the reports, you’d understand why they keep such a low profile.

On March 18, for example, the IG issued a report on “irregularities” in the construction of a $19 million crisis management center in Herndon, Virginia. These included:

  • A 4200-square-foot gym for the building’s 79 employees, which works out to 54 square feet per employee, assuming everyone works out at exactly the same time;

  • Commercial cable TV service in 45 of the 55 lavish offices (tuned to Fox News, no doubt); and

  • Seven kitchens, some equipped with $3,000 Subzero refrigerators. (Because if there’s anything terrorists hate more than our freedoms, it’s our refrigerators. If you’ve ever tried to chill a six pack in the Saudi desert, you’d understand.)

But wait, it gets better. The manager of the construction project spent $500,000 on artwork and silk flowers, then tried to bury the cost in invoices marked “tools and equipment.” The beneficiary of this largesse was a local tool company with whom the manager had “a prior business and personal relationship,” according to the report. Said project manager soon left the TSA to start a new company with--yes, you’ve guessed it, his friends at the tool company–snagging a $34,000 raise with stock options. The report concludes that the former employee “may have breached the requirement to avoid the appearance of ethical violations.” Rest assured he will receive a black mark on his record and a stern talking-to.

Unfortunately for the DHS, this report got picked up by the New York Times and CNN, though it failed to achieve the media saturation of a severed finger in someone’s custard, Paula Abdul banging a 22-year-old American Idol contestant, or the runaway bride who wasn’t.

This is hardly the first time the pigocracy has lavished taxpayer money on creature comforts or been caught with its snout in the trough. But snorfle the IG report archive (some six clicks down from the DHS home page) and you’ll find a basketful of such truffles.

Here’s a small sample:

* On April 1, 2003, a DHS employee sent an April Fools email declaring that one of its detainees, an illegal alien and convicted kidnapper, was now eligible for release. (Apparently this is what passes for fun over at the DHS—such a jolly little crew they must be.) So a deportation officer who read the email cut the kidnapper loose. The DO didn’t read all the way to the end of the message, which noted that it was an April Fool’s joke, or a second email to that effect sent 8 minutes later. Fortunately, the detainee turned himself after a few days of freedom. The prank emailer was put on “paid administration leave” for six months—yes, that’s right, he got a six-month paid vacation--and was then docked a month’s pay. The IG discovered that the DHS had no written policy for approving the release of detainees, so each department was just winging it.

* In 2002, the TSA contracted with Boeing to test 30,000 airport screeners on their ability to operate machines that detect explosives hidden in baggage. Prospective screeners were asked to complete a test with 25 written questions. Just to make extra sure they passed, the screeners were given 22 of the 25 questions ahead of time and were allowed to look up the answers.

The questions weren’t exactly head-scratchers, either. To quote the Washington Times:
One question asks "why is it important to screen bags for IEDs? (improvised explosive devices)." Multiple-choice answers included "ticking timer could worry other passengers," "batteries could leak and damage other passenger bags," or the wires could "cause a short to the aircraft wires." The correct answer is that "IEDs can cause loss of lives, property and aircraft."
The IG’s August 2003 report concludes that “The protocol that TSA adopted maximized the likelihood that students would pass.” And why not? Isn’t providing jobs for 30,000 hard working Americans worth a few midair explosions?

* In a report issued this March, the IG exonerated the TSA for obtaining millions of passenger name records from airlines, despite publicly (and indignantly) denying that it had engaged in any such practice. The report contained this particularly delightful slice of bureaucratese:
“In 2003 and 2004, TSA officials made inaccurate statements regarding these transfers that undermined public trust in the agency. These misstatements were apparently not meant to mischaracterize known facts. Instead, they were premised on an incomplete understanding of the underlying facts at the time the statements were made.”
In other words, they lied, but they didn’t know they were lying, and even if they did know they were lying, it wasn’t their fault.

There are more examples, available to anyone willing to dig deep into the DHS Web site to find them. While the Inspector General’s office continues to air the DHS’s dirty laundry, they’re hanging it in a dark basement in an unmarked building. That’s standard operating procedure for most government agencies, particularly in the Bush Era.

But the DHS isn’t your run-of-the-mill $40 billion bureaucracy. This is the most invasive agency we have. The odds of having the FBI do a sneak-and-peak on your home are slim, but the chances of having your bag riffled by the TSA--if not a pat down or a strip search--are lock-solid-certain, unless you plan to take the bus for the rest of your life.

We’ve given up basic civil liberties – such as the ability to travel within our own borders without showing identification, or to avoid searches without probable cause – in order to feel safer.

Public scrutiny is vital to making sure the agency does its job without abusing its power. Sweeping embarrassments under the carpet only makes us less safe.


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