On November 25th of 2002, President Bush signed into law the Homeland Security Act of 2002, and announced that former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge would be Secretary of a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This act, which authorized the greatest federal government reorganization since President Harry Truman joined the various branches of the armed forces under the Department of Defense, is charged with a three-fold mission of protecting the United States from further terrorist attacks, reducing the nation’s vulnerability to terrorism, and minimizing the damage from potential terrorist attacks and natural disasters.
A sweeping reorganization into the new Department, which officially opened its doors on January 24th of 2003, joined together over 179,000 federal employees from twenty-two existing federal agencies under the umbrella of a single, Cabinet-level organization.
The creation of DHS was the culmination of an evolutionary legislative process that began largely in response to criticism that increased federal intelligence inter-agency cooperation could have prevented the September 11th terrorist attacks. Just nine days following those attacks, President Bush created the Office of Homeland Security (by Executive Order), with Tom Ridge as Director, but the small office became widely viewed as ineffective.
The White House and Congress recognized that a Homeland Security czar would require both a staff and a large budget in order to succeed, and thus began deliberations to create a new Cabinet-level Department that would fuse many of the security-related agencies dispersed throughout the federal government. For several months during the second-half of 2002, Congress jockeyed between different versions of the Homeland Security bill in an effort to establish legislation that was passable yet effective.
Lawmakers were particularly mired on the issue of the rights of employees. Furthermore, the White House ultimately failed in their attempt to incorporate many of the intelligence-gathering and investigative law enforcement agencies, namely the National Security Agency (NSA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Despite these delays and setbacks, the Republican seats gained in both the House and Senate gave the President the leverage he needed to pass the bill without further deliberation.
Beginning March 1st or 2003, almost all of the federal agencies (and their respective employees) named in the act began their move, whether literally or symbolically, into the new Department. Those remaining followed later that year, with all incidental transfers completed by September 1st. While a handful of these agencies remained intact after the move, most were incorporated into one of four new directorates; Border and Transportation Security (BTS), Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection (IAIP), Emergency Preparedness and Response (EP&R), and Science and Technology (S&T). A fifth directorate, Management, did not incorporate any existing federal agencies. FEMA was moved into, and essentially composed, the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate. Assistant Director of FEMA Michael Brown became the DHS Assistant Secretary for Emergency Preparedness and Response.
On January 24th of 2003, Tom Ridge and a small initial staff commenced work at the Nebraska Avenue Center (NAC) headquarters, a facility shared with the US Navy in Northwest Washington, DC (that had previously been used by the Office of Homeland Security.) Eight days later, when the Space Shuttle Challenger tragically exploded over Texas, the Department was tasked with its first disaster response. One week later, in reaction to information gathered by intelligence agencies, President Bush raised the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System index from yellow (elevated) to orange (high). However, it was not until a series of hurricanes struck in late 2004 that the true effectiveness of DHS, in its emergency management role, was tested. While the response mechanism surely worked as it had been designed to do, the recovery operations will likely extend for years owing to the massive damage that was incurred.