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More than five years after its creation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) still suffers from a host of growing pains — growing pains that have attracted scrutiny from a variety of watchdog groups. Cobbled together in 2003 from 22 disparate agencies, the sprawling department oversees a budget that is creeping toward $50 billion. From the inception of DHS, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) categorized its implementation and transformation as a “high risk” item. “It represented an enormous undertaking that would require time to achieve in an effective and efficient manner,” then-Comptroller General David M. Walker told Congress in February 2008, adding that a successful transformation can take five to seven years. DHS has not exactly earned straight A’s, either. Despite repeated promptings from the GAO, the department had not created a comprehensive transformation strategy by its fifth birthday and has struggled to prioritize the most pressing risks to the country’s safety, both when allocating grants to state and local partners and when planning internal strategies. In its first two years, the department came under fire for its bureaucratic torpor, and as one of his first acts after taking office in 2005, Secretary Michael Chertoff commissioned a study that led to a departmental reorganization later that year. Although the department’s operations have improved in recent years, “DHS has made more progress in its mission areas than in its management areas,” Walker noted in his February testimony. In 2008, reports from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the GAO, and the DHS inspector general shared concerns about several areas, including: contractor oversight, information technology, financial management, transportation security, and emergency preparedness. The GAO recently included “protecting the homeland” as one of 13 “urgent issues” requiring the attention of President-Elect Obama and the 111th Congress. “The department must ensure that it is prepared and vigilant,” the GAO’s transition website warns, “particularly during the presidential transition period, when the nation can be viewed as being especially vulnerable.”

The GAO reports to each new Congress on its high-risk items, so an updated report should be in the offing in early 2009. In December 2008, the Obama transition team announced that Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano will lead DHS in the new administration. Though the DHS Press Office did not respond to a request for comment, on the fifth anniversary of the department’s creation, Chertoff said the department’s accomplishments “have laid the foundation for a strong, efficient and vigilant, mature Department of Homeland Security — one that will protect the American people and our way of life for many years to come.”

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