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Code yellow: Elevated risk of waste 

Monday may have been code yellow at the Department of Homeland Security, but Warren Rudman was red hot. You may remember Rudman; he's the former U.S. senator who, along with former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, warned in a February 2001 report that terrorists would likely attack the United States. That report was ignored by Congress, the White House and the Pentagon for a full seven months.

This week, Rudman, and a group of military leaders, Nobel laureates and other high-level leaders concluded that the United States is still "dangerously unprepared and underfunded for a catastrophic terrorist attack."

Which brings us to the Department of Homeland Security, the Tom Ridge-led cabinet-level bureaucracy created post 9-11. This year Homeland Security received $36 billion from the federal government, of which $4 billion was meted out for local response to potential terrorist activities. According to Rudman et al., therein lies the problem. The feds, they say, are " drastically underfunding" local emergency responders, including local police and fire departments.

Gordon Johndroe, the agency's mouthpiece, this week poo-pooed Rudman's findings. "We think the money we've been appropriating [to local governments and emergency responders] is the right amount."

So what exactly has the Washington D.C. bureaucracy been spending all those billions on? Here's a sample: A couple weeks ago, the agency sent out a press release announcing its newly designed official seal (at left). They were clearly pretty excited about it, as they sent this newspaper alone nine copies of the announcement.

It pretty much looks like an eagle to us, but what do we lowly civilians know? Clearly this is no ordinary seal. According to the press release, "The eagle's wings break through the inner circle into the outer ring to suggest that the Department of Homeland Security will break through traditional bureaucracy and perform government functions differently.

"Centered on the eagle's breast is a shield divided into three sections containing elements that represent the American Homeland -- air, land and sea. The top element, a dark blue sky, contains 22 stars representing the original 22 entities that have come together to form the department. The left shield element contains white mountains behind a green plain underneath a light blue sky. The right shield element contains four wave shapes representing the oceans alternating light and dark blue separated by white lines."

The release indicated the seal had been developed with input from the department's senior leadership, employees and the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts as well as hired experts from the Ad Council and a consulting company, Landor Associates, who "were responsible for graphic design and maintaining heraldic integrity."

And here's what they're going to do with it: "All 180,000 DHS employees will soon receive a DHS lapel pin and a personalized DHS certificate," the press release declared. "The personalized certificate signifies that the employee was part of the Department of Homeland Security at its inception."

We had some additional questions for the federal agency, namely, How much did they spend on creating the official seal? And, how much do they plan to shell out for lapel pins and certificates of appreciation?

Instead of ushering in a denizen of government employees and outside contractors, had they considered simply hiring a talented graphic designer, possibly out of work, who could have done the job cheaply?

Most importantly, how exactly does their eagle campaign symbolize a "breakthrough in ... traditional bureaucracy"? And what the heck does "maintaining heraldic integrity" mean?

Unfortunately the press releases did not list routine contact information for additional information. So, on Monday, as Americans went about what Homeland Security defined as an "elevated" yellow day -- meaning we were at "significant risk of terrorist attack" we searched the Department of Homeland Security Web site at www.dhs.gov, looking for its telephone number. Nothing, not even a main switchboard number. We tried to access their "contact us" Web link and were met with blank address-less e-mail pages -- including the link the American public could ostensibly use to report suspected security breaches.

Finally we called the operator for the number (that took three tries until we were given the right one). When we finally got department spokesman Johndroe on the phone, he claimed this was the first he'd heard of any problems related to the complexities the public faces trying to contact the agency that is charged with keeping them safe. Then, perversely, he asked, "Are you taking this down? That was off the record." Shortly after that, he ended the call.

A breakthrough in bureaucracy indeed.

-- degette@csindy.com

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