WASHINGTON (CN) – Lack of cohesion at the Department of Homeland Security is creating vulnerability and some confusion in the national security framework, DHS officials told Congress on Wednesday.
The department's deputy secretary, Elaine Duke, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affair that the disunity in the department stems from the multiple offices which comprise it and a lack of intradepartmental communication and funding.
Duke said that addressing these issues requires full congressional support for passage of the Department of Homeland Security Authorization Act of 2017.
But before Congress forks over funding, lawmakers grilled the officials over glaring examples of disorder rampant in the department.
The most glaring, for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the committee’s ranking Democrat, was the process undertaken during the implementation of President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
“Not only did it take months for the department to respond to the Inspector General regarding privilege claims, in the end, the department [inserted] a privilege never used before: invoking a deliberate process,” McCaskill said. “If anything wasn’t deliberate, it was [that ban]. It occurred without adequate notice to the department … and anyone with common sense could see that. You used a deliberative process to block information from the public.”
Duke explained the process was “protective” because while the inspector general had “adequate information” needed to understand decisions made between DHS and the executive branch during the ban, privilege between the two trumped what Congress could see about the process.
“It’s important we protect this and we will provide a report to congress but the important thing to note is, even with redactions, it does state what the process was and we believe that even with the deliberative process, it gives adequate information about what happened with the travel ban,” Grady said.
Unsatisfied, McCaskill said Duke’s explanation were “outrageous” before noting the government is sued constantly.
“We can’t use litigation to stop information getting to the Inspector General because then every department will [use that excuse,]” the senator said.
Worried the same process would be repeated elsewhere as lawmakers conduct oversight of the department, McCaskill managed to secure a promise from Duke to hold a one-on-one briefing before a full public report was issued.
“We want to know what’s being hidden,” McCaskill said.
Lack of transparency is also a problem when it comes to recruiting contracts for Customs and Border Patrol, another offshoot of DHS.
Since Jan. 3 the committee has waited for the Department to explain why bidding for recruits hired to monitor U.S. borders is far from competitive.
Noting the department’s ongoing struggle to hire border agents, McCaskill lamented the $40,000 the department spends to hire someone who will be paid a salary of the same amount.
“This is the best deal you could get? Paying $40,000 for every job that pays $40,000?” McCaskill grilled DHS under secretary for management Claire Grady.
A net loss of 400 positions for border patrol agents annually was part of the reason hiring rates weren’t competitive, Grady explained.
“But its outrageously high ... Folks where I live? Where people think the government has lost its mind? This would be an exhibit of that,” McCaskill said.
As Grady defended the cost and promised to deliver information on their contract cost decisions, the senator’s patience ran out.
“I want that contract file. Is it coming soon? I want an exact date. How about two weeks?”
Grady agreed to the deadline.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., echoed McCaskill’s sentiments.
“There’s a boat load of money coming your way and if we can’t trust the decisions being made … this is not going to go well. These issues are critical … and if we can’t even see inspector general reports and attachments, we’re not doing oversight,” Heitkamp said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, another offshoot of DHS, also failed to give Congress an explanation for how the outlay of $50 billion invested in disaster preparedness grants functions.
FEMA relies on individual states to offer the department assessments of their own needs. What Congress doesn’t know is how those grants actually make anyone safer or build up emergency capabilities, argued Sen. Ron Portman, R-Ohio.
“It’s concerning to hear you say we don’t know what our $50 billion investment is really buying us year in and year out,” Portman said.
Portman, who was involved in the department’s formation over a decade ago, offered little sympathy to the department Wednesday.
Since December, DHS has failed to turn over information about its privately run detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico Border, Portman said. The same unresponsiveness also exists with questions lawmakers have asked the department to answer repeatedly regarding the protection of unaccompanied alien children stopped at the border.
“You’re unresponsive, have produced no documents and we’ve made phone calls and [sent] emails since December 6,” Portman said.”We had a hearing [in January] and there was deep concern on the lack of accountability. We’re simply looking for what you told us you were doing.”
A memo of agreement between the Health and Human Services Department and DHS for the protection of those minors was made in February 2017, Portman noted.
“I was not aware of that, I will give the committee a timeline next week on all of your requests,” Duke said.
DHS Acting Inspector General John Kelly testified that the United States Citizenship and Immigrations Services branch was hemorrhaging money.
“The USCIS still uses a paper file system to process immigration benefits and spends $300 million per year just to store and transport its 20 million immigrant paper files. USCIS has been attempting to automate this process since 2005, but despite spending more than $500 million on the technology program between Fiscal Years 2008 and 2012, little progress has been made,” he said.