Department of Homeland Security History

Cabinet Agency Designed For 'Unified, Effective Response' to Terrorism

George W. Bush and the Department of Homeland Security
President George W. Bush signs the Homeland Security Appropriations Act. Standing, at right, is the first secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge. Mark Wilson/Getty Images Staff

The Department of Homeland Security is the primary agency in the U.S. government whose mission is to prevent terrorist attacks on American soil. Homeland Security is a cabinet-level department that has its origins in the nation's response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when members of terrorist network al-Qaeda hijacked four American commercial airliners and intentionally crashed them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania.

'Unified, Effective Response' to Terror

President George W. Bush initially created Homeland Security as an office inside the White House 10 days after the terrorist attacks. Bush announced the creation of the office and his choice to lead it, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, on Sept. 21, 2001. ''He will lead, oversee and coordinate a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard our country against terrorism and respond to any attacks that may come,'' Bush said.

Ridge reported directly to the president and was assigned the task of coordinating the 180,000 employees working in the nation's intelligence, defense and law enforcement agencies to protect the homeland. Ridge described the daunting role of his agency in a 2004 interview with reporters. "We have to be right a billion-plus times a year, meaning we have to make literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of decisions every year, or every day, and the terrorists only have to be right once," Ridge said. 

One lawmaker, citing the biblical story of Noah, described Ridge's monumental task as trying to build an ark after the rain has already started falling.

Creation of Cabinet Department

Bush's creation of the White House office also marked the beginning of a debate in Congress to establish a Department of Homeland Security in the broader federal government. Bush initially resisted the idea of moving such an important responsibility into the Byzantine bureaucracy, but signed onto the idea in 2002. Congress approved the creation of The Department of Homeland Security in November 2002, and Bush signed the legislation into law that same month. He also nominated Ridge to be the first-ever secretary of the department. The Senate confirmed Ridge in January 2003.

22 Agencies Absorbed By Homeland Security

Bush's intention in creating the Department of Homeland Security was to bring under one roof most of the federal government's law-enforcement, immigration and anti-terror-related agencies. The president moved 22 federal department and agencies under Homeland Security, as one official told The Washington Post, "so we are not doing things in stovepipes but doing it as a department." The move was portrayed at the time as the largest reorganization of the federal government's responsibilities since World War II.

The 22 federal departments and agencies absorbed by Homeland Security are:

  • Transportation Security Administration
  • Coast Guard 
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency 
  • Secret Service 
  • Customs and Border Protection
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • Citizenship and Immigration Services
  • Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office of the Department of Commerce
  • National Communications System of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center
  • Energy Assurance Office of the Department of Energy
  •  Federal Computer Incident Response Center of the General Services Administration
  • Federal Protective Service 
  • Office of Domestic Preparedness
  • Federal Law Enforcement Training Center 
  • Integrated Hazard Information System of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • National Domestic Preparedness Office of the FBI
  • Domestic Emergency Support Team of the Department of Justice
  • Metropolitan Medical Response System of the Department of Health and Human Services
  • National Disaster Medical System of the Department of Health and Human Services
  • Office of Emergency Preparedness and the Strategic National Stockpile of the Department of Health and Human Services
  • Plum Island Animal Disease Center of Department of Agriculture

Evolving Role Since 2001

The Department of Homeland Security has been called on numerous times to handle catastrophes other than those caused by terrorism. They include cyber crimes, border security and immigration, and human trafficking and natural disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The department also plans security for major public events including the Super Bowl and the president's State of the Union Address.

Controversies and Criticism

The Department of Homeland Security came under scrutiny almost from the moment it was created. It has endured stinging criticism from lawmakers, terrorism experts and the public for issuing vague and confusing alerts over the years. 

  • Terror alerts: Its color-coded alert system, developed under Ridge, was widely ridiculed and criticized for not being more specific about how the public should respond to elevated threats. The system used five colors - green, blue, yellow, orange and red - to inform the public in real-time about the threat of terrorism.
    Appearing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in November 2002, Ridge was pressed by the comedian: ''I'm sitting at home in my underpants watching the game and, boop, we're in yellow. What do I do now?'' Ridge's response: ''Change shorts.'' Nonetheless, the color-coded alerts were a source of frustration among Americans who were being told to be on alert, but weren't sure about what to look for.
  • Duct tape: So, too, was the department's 2003 directive that Americans stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal the windows and doors of their home in the event of a terrorist attack.
    Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told the Chicago Tribune: "Most of the suggestions, I don't believe, are effective at all in really helping to protect anyone from many of these biological and chemical threats. I mean, duct tape and plastic? Where's the good air coming from? How's it going to be recirculated? Beyond the fact that we already know, for nerve gas and other elements, the plastic is totally ineffective."
    Quipped Leno: ''This means the only people who are going to survive an attack are serial killers. Who else has duct tape and plastic sheeting in their car?''
  • Going global: Homeland Security has also caused friction between the United States and some European countries for deploying about 2,000 special agents and immigration workers to more than 70 countries, as The New York Times reported in late 2017. The United States under President Donald Trump was accused of trying to "export its immigration laws," the newspaper reported.
  • Katrina: Homeland Security came under the most intense fire, however, for its response to and handling of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the costliest natural disaster in American history. The agency was hammered for not developing a national response plan until two days after the storm hit.
    "If our government failed so utterly in preparing for, and responding to, a disaster that had been long predicted and was imminent for days, we must wonder how much more profound the failure would be if a disaster were to take us by complete surprise," said Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who called Homeland Security's response "alarming and unacceptable." 

    Department of Homeland Security History

    Here is a timeline of key moments in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

    • Sept. 11, 2001: Members of the terrorist network al-Qaeda, acting under the direction of Osama bin Laden, orchestrate a series of attacks on the United States after hijacking four airplanes. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people.
    • Sept. 22, 2001: President George W. Bush creates the Office of Homeland Security in the White House, and chooses then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to lead it. 
    • Nov. 25, 2002: Bush signs the Congress-passed bill creating the Department of Homeland Security in the federal government. "We are taking historic action to defend the United States and protect our citizens against the dangers of a new era," Bush said at the ceremony. He nominated Ridge to be secretary.
    • Jan. 22, 2003: The U.S. Senate, in a unanimous, 94-0 vote, confirms Ridge as the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Bush issued a prepared statement afterward that read: "With today's historic vote, the Senate has demonstrated our shared commitment to doing everything we can to secure our homeland." The department initially has about 170,000 employees.
    • Nov. 30, 2004: Ridge announces he plans to step down as secretary of Homeland Security, citing personal reasons. "I just want to step back and pay a little more attention to personal matters," he told reporters. Ridge served in the position through Feb. 1, 2005.
    • Feb. 15, 2005: Michael Chertoff, a federal appeals court judge and former assistant U.S. attorney general credited with helping investigators link the terrorist attacks to al-Qaeda, takes over as the second Homeland Security secretary under Bush. He departed at the end of Bush's second term.
    • Jan. 20, 2009: Janet Napolitano, the governor of Arizona, was tapped by incoming President Barack Obama to serve as Homeland Security secretary in his administration. She resigned in July 2013 to become the head of the University of California system after becoming embroiled in the debate over immigration; she was accused both of being too harsh in deporting those living in the United States illegally and not acting forcefully enough to secure the nation's borders.
    • Dec. 23, 2013: Jeh Johnson, a former general counsel to the Pentagon and the Air Force, takes over as the fourth Homeland Security secretary. He served through the remainder of Obama's tenure in the White House.
    • Jan. 20, 2017: John F. Kelly, a retired Marine general, and incoming President Donald Trump's pick, becomes the fifth Homeland Security secretary. He served in the position through July 2017 and became chief of staff to Trump.
    • Dec. 5, 2017: Kirstjen Nielsen, a cybersecurity expert who worked in the Bush administration and as a deputy to Kelly, is confirmed as Homeland Security secretary to replace her former boss. The department has grown to 240,000 employees, according to published reports.