Will securing country remain top priority?

Seven years after the bloodiest attack on American soil, homeland security remains the federal government’s top domestic priority. But both presidential candidates have not presented voters with a detailed strategy to protect our nation while overhauling a dysfunctional agency plagued by high turnover and low morale. In fact, both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain have been conspicuously quiet about how they plan to keep Americans safe during the next four years.

Five years ago, President George W. Bush caved to pressure from congressional Democrats and cobbled together 22 separate federal agencies to create the massive Department of Homeland Security. DHS has been working against itself ever since. For example, immigration policies promoted by DHS’ Customs and Immigration Service create enforcement nightmares for the same department’s Transportation Security Administration. DHS wasted $1.5 billion on malfunctioning electronic sensors that were supposed to help secure U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada. Meanwhile, the starting pay for border patrol agents, many of whom actually risk their lives on a daily basis combating drug traffickers and other criminals, is a measly $36,000 a year.

As for DHS’ signature project — a fence along the southern border that’s supposed to at least slow down the torrent of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. — security experts can only hold their heads in their hands.

Only half of the 670 miles of new fencing is in place and the project is already out of money. In a letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, House Homeland Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rep. David Price, D-N.H., expressed “serious doubt about [DHS’s] ability to accomplish its stated goals.” Nevertheless, on Monday Price’s subcommittee approved $400 million more for the fence, which was supposed to be finished by the end of the year.

Federal auditors say $15 billion has been wasted on bungled contracts — from the $200 million Federal Emergency Management Agency spent for flimsy trailers to house victims of Hurricane Katrina to the $351 million doled out by the Coast Guard for its now-scrapped Deepwater project. That money is no longer available to harden critical infrastructure and prepare for the next disaster.

DHS officials have to answer to 86 congressional panels, more than twice the number that oversee the Pentagon. Spending at DHS has dramatically increased and noncompetitive contracts are being steered to politically connected insiders, according to the Project on Government Oversight, a public interest group. So what are Obama and McCain going to do to fix this mess?

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