The concept of homeland security quickly gained momentum in America after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Eleven days after the attacks, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge became the first Director of the Office of Homeland Security. The new office was charged with overseeing and coordinating a comprehensive national strategy for safeguarding the country against terrorism, as well as responding to future attacks.
In November 2002, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act. Instead of working under the White House, the Department of Homeland Security became a stand-alone, Cabinet-level department. The Department opened on March 1st, 2003. Twenty-two different federal departments and agencies were combined in its creation.
The Department's mission is to ensure a safe and secure homeland that is resilient in the face of terrorism. The unified and integrated Department of Homeland Security values accountability, transparency and efficiency. It is supported by federal, state and local governments. Law enforcement, the private sector and international allies also offer support. The Department uses innovative approaches through advanced science and technology to increase awareness of risks and improving national safety. More than 230,000 people work in the Department.
The Department has five stated missions:
• Prevent terrorism and enhance security
• Secure and manage borders
• Enforce and administer immigration laws
• Safeguard and secure cyberspace
• Ensure resilience to disasters
The Counterterrorism Unit functions to prevent terrorist attacks and prevent the unauthorized use of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials. It also seeks to reduce the vulnerability of infrastructure, leaders and major events to terrorism.
Securing and managing borders includes effectively securing U.S. points of entry on land, in the air and at sea. It also includes safeguarding lawful trade and travel, and working to dismantle international terrorist and criminal organizations. In the area of immigration laws, the Department focuses on streamlining the immigration process, while removing criminal aliens, and punishing those who employ illegal immigrants.
In the cyberspace arena, the Department secures infrastructure and information systems for industry and government entities. It analyzes cyber threats, distributes threat warnings, and coordinates the response to cyber incidents.
The Department works to ensure resilience to disasters by coordinating a comprehensive federal response in case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. It achieves this objective through information sharing, providing grants and training to law enforcement partners, and facilitating rebuilding along the Gulf coast.
Another role of the Department is to strengthen global aviation security. After an attempted attack in 2009, the Department launched this initiative. The Secure Flight Program fulfills a 9/11 Commission advisory to screen all passengers against government terrorist watch lists. It utilizes intelligence and multiple layers of security at airports to reduce terrorist threats. The Department has also implemented a multi-layered security system to check air cargo, especially for chemicals used to make explosive devices.
To enhance national preparedness for the possibility of attack, the Department provides funding to hire first-responders and improve fire stations, bridges, and ports of entry. It also funds baggage handling systems at airports, tactical communications equipment, and a campaign to increase public awareness of potential threats.
Outside America's borders, the Department has established and strengthened international partnerships. It has signed international aviation security agreements with 20 nations. It also signed agreements with 14 nations to exchange biometric data on terrorists and criminals. In London, it established an Electronic Crimes Task Force. The Force's role is to prevent, detect and investigate electronic crimes, such as cyber attacks.
Within America, the Department of Homeland Security works to expedite the citizenship process for immigrants. It has launched a website in English and Spanish that allows people to track their cases within the immigration system. Through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it redesigned the Green Card with security features designed to prevent counterfeiting.
The Department also manages a humanitarian operation to combat human smuggling. The Blue Campaign to Combat Human Trafficking engages in public outreach, law enforcement training, and victim assistance. In 2010 alone, the Department investigated 2,200 reports of human smuggling, resulting in convictions and asset seizures.
The Department has attracted controversy since its inception. It has gained a negative image among communities that feel targeted by its activities, and its airport security measures have been criticized as superficial and unnecessarily intrusive. In April 2011, the Department announced a new initiative with the goal of undoing mistrust and misinformation about its agencies. The main thrust of the plan was to bring Department of Homeland Security employees together with Muslim groups and immigrants to answer questions and reach out to build trust.