Former Gov. Tom Ridge and his prospective deputy, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England, have their work cut out for them as they launch the new Department of Homeland Security next month. Merging 22 disparate government agencies and 170,000 people into a working organization is in itself a Herculean task. Ensuring that the United States is successfully protected for the long-term is even more daunting.
So complaining about the name of the new organization seems petty. But names are important and can create unexpected consequences. General Motors discovered that when it tried to sell its compact model, the Nova, in Mexico. “No va” in Spanish means “no go.” And the car didn’t down Mexico way.
After Saddam Hussein sent the U.N. weapons inspectors packing in late 1998, the United States responded with four days of air and missile strikes. The operation was called “Desert Fox.” Desert Fox was also Erwin Rommel’s nickname, one of Hitler’s most famous generals, evoking an unfortunate comparison. “Homeland Security” is likewise vulnerable to the vagaries of name.
First, “homeland” has a slightly pejorative, zealous patriotic ring to it. The Nazi’s referred to Germany as the “fatherland” and Russia was the sacred “motherland” of the Communist Soviet Union. The inference is one of “big brother” and excessively intrusive government action to secure the homeland at the cost of civil liberties and freedoms.
Second, “homeland security” is a stark reminder of the nation’s vulnerability to terrorist attack. That reminder, improperly expressed, can exaggerate the true degree of vulnerability. The United States did not suddenly become vulnerable after September 11. The nation was always potentially vulnerable as is every other state in the world. But September 11 was the first time external terror so visibly disrupted the nation.
Third, the department’s responsibilities are as crisply defined by the name “homeland security” as are State, Defense, Justice, Labor and Agriculture (unlike the more diffuse sounding Health and Human Services). Vagueness, of course, can be useful in blurring boundaries of responsibility. And, simply because a new department has been created regardless of name, the nation automatically will not be better off. The relatively new Education and Energy departments have not transformed either sector even though Cabinet positions were created.
This matter of definition is not trivial. The department is responsible for many crucial duties from guarding and controlling borders and frontiers to keep evildoers and illegals out to responding to calamities irrespective of cause. The Coast Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency fall under the new department along with a dozen and a half other offices. But lines of demarcation with law enforcement and intelligence agencies have yet to be drawn.
In guarding the borders, where does law enforcement to prevent the importation of drugs and other illicit goods stop and homeland security to detect weapon of mass destruction start? In coordinating intelligence, what does this department do that the Central Intelligence Agency cannot or should not do?
Overall, the department must prepare, prevent and respond to disasters whether acts of nature or of man. Hurricanes, floods, droughts and weather extremes do enormous amounts of damage. So far, terrorist attacks from Oklahoma City to the World Trade Center and anthrax-laced letters, while devastating, are only suggestive of what could lie ahead. Homeland Security is charged with coping with all of them.
A name change could help. The Bush administration has publicly made the case for “pre-emptive” action. However, unless the Pentagon is renamed the Department of Offense, “defense” is unavailable for the new agency. “Security,” used alone, conjures up a B-movie with “rentacops” arriving too late to deal with some act of mayhem. An acronym could work. But using the motto of prepare, prevent, respond as its basis, “preprevres” is too French sounding for this administration.
At a much earlier but dangerous time in 1782, the British government decided that the job of secretary of state was too big for one person. It divided the post between the Foreign Office and the Home Office. The Home Office was in charge of law and law enforcement, including administering the prisons. “Home” was a nice soothing word and no one debated what duties fell under the home secretary. Unfortunately, Home Office is now taken.
These criticisms of the name portray broader concerns about the department. It cannot become too zealous and thereby compromise freedoms simply by asserting the need for greater security. It must define in a clear way readily understandable by the public what it does. And it needs to educate the public that we live in times in which bad things will happen. If the new department can carry out these aims, it will have done its duty. If it does not, we are all in trouble irrespective of what we call it.
Harlan Ullman is a writer, a columnist for The Washington Times and is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.