Department of Homeland Security History

Cabinet Agency Designed to Respond 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 (DHS) is an agency in the U.S. government that aims to prevent terrorist attacks in America.

Homeland Security is a Cabinet-level department that was created in response to the attacks of September 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. This department has undergone many changes and drawn wide criticism since its establishment.

Purpose of the Department of Homeland Security

President George W. Bush initially created Homeland Security as an office inside the White House 10 days after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Bush announced the creation of the office and his choice of Assistant to the President for the department, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, on September 21, 2001.

Bush said of Ridge and his plan for the role:

''He will lead, oversee and coordinate a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard our country against terrorism and respond to any attacks that may come.''

The Assistant to the President was made responsible for reporting directly to the president on activity and coordinating more than 180,000 employees working in the nation's intelligence, defense, and law enforcement agencies.

Ridge described the daunting role of his agency in a 2004 interview with reporters, after stepping down as director of the department in 2003:

"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," (Stevenson and Johnston 2004).

Bush's Goal for the DHS

According to Bush, the department's ultimate goal at the time of its creation was to "make Americans safer" by securing borders and infrastructure, coordinating communications between government agencies about security threats, managing and training emergency responders, and synthesizing intelligence.

Essentially, this department would "protect the American homeland" by unifying departments and restructuring the country's threat management system to be more efficient and effective (Bush 2002).

How the DHS Has Changed

Starting almost immediately after it was established, the Department of Homeland Security began changing in significant ways. The first was its federalization.

DHS Incorporated Into the Federal Government

Shortly after Bush created the Department of Homeland Security in the White House, Congress pushed for it to be established as an entity of the federal government.

Bush initially resisted the idea of moving such an important responsibility into the Byzantine bureaucracy but reluctantly signed onto the idea in 2002. Congress approved the creation of the United States 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.

President Bush wasn't the only one who was hesitant about this change. Many members of Congress opposed the creation of this department, mostly due to concerns about its poor organization and lack of oversight. Vice President Richard Cheney was outspoken about his opposition, arguing that establishing a cabinet to oppose terrorism would be more unmanageable and less effective and would give the government too much power. But despite many dissenters, the department was established.

22 Agencies Absorbed

After the DHS was approved as a federal agency, the president moved 22 federal departments and agencies under Homeland Security in order to unify shared efforts. This 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 were:

  • 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

Due to the size and scope of this integration, and the logistical challenges associating with merging so many distinct groups, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified the Department of Homeland Security as "high-risk" in 2003. High risk programs and operations are defined as "vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement, or in need of transformation." As of 2021, the DHS still has programs on the GAO's High Risk List. Areas of concern include cybersecurity; the internal management of information, finance, and acquisition; and the protection of U.S. technology.

Evolution of the Department

The Department of Homeland Security is constantly evolving to take on new roles and meet the changing needs of modern America.

Over the years, the department has taken on such threats as cybercrime, human trafficking, and natural disasters including oil spills, hurricanes, and wildfires. The department also plans security for major public events including the Super Bowl and the president's State of the Union Address.

The purpose of the department itself is also reimagined often. In 2007, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defined the three mission areas of The National Strategy for Homeland Security as follows:

  • Prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks
  • Protect the American people, infrastructure, and key resources
  • Respond to and recover from incidents that do occur

Many presidents have worked to better the department as they have seen fit. For example, the Obama administration often acknowledged the shortcomings of the Department of Homeland Security during its eight years and worked to improve it, calling it a "work in progress" in a 2017 exit memo. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh C. Johnson, who served from 2013 to 2017, initiated a memorandum called the "Strengthening of Departmental Unity of Effort" in 2014 designed to reform the department by centralizing decision-making and improving both budget and acquisition strategies. They considered this initiative to be a success (Johnson 2017).

In December 2020, the Trump administration announced its plans for space-related directives in the department. The National Space Policy would "ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of space activities." This would be accomplished by using cybersecurity to protect space systems, increasing security on space assets, and creating a more robust system for space-related communication ("Trump Administration" 2020).

Controversies and Criticism

Not surprisingly after the mixed reception it received in Congress in 2002, 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 many reasons. Here are some of the issues for which the DHS has come under fire.

Immigration Policies

With its strict immigration policies intended to protect American citizens from terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security has neglected and harmed people immigrating to this country seeking freedom, safety, refuge, and asylum.

Many citizens and government officials feel that the DHS focuses too heavily on undocumented immigration and that its treatment of immigrants, particularly children and those who have been living in the country for much of their lives, is unjust. The Obama administration imposed a directive prioritizing the removal of only undocumented immigrants who posed security threats to the United States (citing reasons such as gang association and felonies) in 2014, but the Trump administration lifted this in 2017 to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport anyone found to be entering or living in the country illegally. This has led to countless detainees being turned away at the border and the sudden deportation of people who have been living in the U.S. without papers for years.

Immigration officers working for the DHS have long been accused of racial profiling and other unconstitutional methods as well. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in particular has been accused by members of the public and civil rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union of violating people's Fourth Amendment rights when issuing deportation orders, performing searches and seizures, and making arrests. Use of excessive force and deportations based on outdated information have also been raised as potential malpractices.

Lack of Oversight and Organization

There have been countless instances of misconduct within the Department of Homeland Security that have been attributed to lack of accountability and mismanagement. Elizabeth Goitein and Carrie Cordero from the Brennan Center for Justice discuss this. Calling guidelines and coordinating mechanisms woefully insufficient and the size of administration too small to adequately supervise the department's activity, they describe the problem as follows:

"Oversight by congressional committees has also been difficult for two reasons. First, jurisdiction over the department is spread across more than 100 committees and subcommittees, creating competition, confusion, and gaps in coverage. That’s why consolidating congressional oversight of DHS remains the most important recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that has never been implemented. Second, the political dialogue concerning immigration and border security specifically has become so polarized that bipartisan cooperation on DHS oversight has been severely strained," (Goitein and Cordero 2020).

Many opponents of the department argue that its purpose is far too broad, leaving expectations vague and individuals overwhelmed. By giving too many tasks to one department, many critics feel that the mission of the Department of Homeland Security—to protect the American people—has become convoluted and lost behind varied definitions of "homeland security," poor coordination between departments, and the slow implementation of policies and strategies.

Poor Disaster Response

Homeland Security has come under intense fire before for its record of slow and unsatisfactory disaster responses. Hurricane Katrina offers just one example. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, it became the costliest natural disaster in American history. The agency was hammered for not developing a national relief plan until two days after the storm hit, a delayed response that many critics say contributed to the high number of deaths, over 1,800 in total, that followed the hurricane.

The scope of the disaster left several states unable to support their residents and bureaucratic breakdowns complicated the process of getting federal help. "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," (Collins 2007).

Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which devasted Puerto Rico in 2017, were said to have been similarly mishandled by FEMA. The organization was criticized for not having the resources and employees necessary to properly manage the catastrophe, and lack of communication between FEMA, local responders, and agencies of the federal government responsible for sending relief supplies failed hurricane victims and again called into question the agency's preparedness and coordination capabilities.

Calls for Abolishment

With all of the controversial decisions the DHS has made and criticisms of the department as a whole, many government officials, including members of Congress, have called for it be dissolved. One such Congress member, Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, feels that the Department of Homeland Security fails to make America safer and is prone to corruption. In a 2019 tweet, she wrote:

"When DHS was [first] formed by Bush 17 years ago, many members of Congress were concerned—[including] GOP—that we were setting up a ticking time bomb for civil liberties erosion [and] abuse of power," (Iati 2019).

Those not in favor of abolishing the department completely argue that it at least needs a radical overhaul. Calls for it to be reorganized and better regulated can be heard amongst both Democrats and Republicans, who tend to agree that its skewed priorities and susceptibility to power abuse are causes for concern. Some feel that the department is flawed because it federalizes otherwise private sectors and bloats the government and others are primarily concerned with the department's record of racially discriminatory practices and problematic relationship with immigrants.

Department of Homeland Security Timeline

Here is a timeline of key moments in the history of the Department of Homeland Security including administrative changes and events.

September 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 kill nearly 3,000 people.

September 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. 

November 25, 2002: Bush signs the Congressionally-approved 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 says at the ceremony. He nominates Ridge as secretary.

January 22, 2003: The U.S. Senate, in a unanimous 94-0 vote, confirms Ridge as the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. The department initially has about 170,000 employees.

November 30, 2004: Ridge announces his 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 tells reporters. Ridge serves in the position through February 1, 2005.

February 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 departs at the end of Bush's second term.

January 20, 2009: Janet Napolitano, the governor of Arizona, is tapped by incoming President Barack Obama to serve as Homeland Security secretary in his administration. She resigns in July 2013 to become the head of the University of California system after becoming embroiled in the debate over immigration; she is accused both of being too harsh in deporting those living in the United States illegally and of not acting forcefully enough to secure the nation's borders.

December 23, 2013: Jeh Johnson, a former general counsel to the Pentagon and the Air Force, takes over as the fourth Homeland Security secretary. He serves through the remainder of Obama's tenure in the White House.

January 20, 2017: John F. Kelly, a retired Marine general, and incoming President Donald Trump's pick, becomes the fifth Homeland Security secretary. He serves in the position through July 2017 until becoming chief of staff to Trump.

December 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. Nielsen comes under fire for enforcing Trump's policy of separating children and parents who had crossed the U.S.-Mexican border illegally. She resigns in April 2019 amid clashes with Trump that she was not being tough enough on immigration.

April 8, 2019: Trump names Kevin McAleenan acting Homeland Security secretary following Nielsen's resignation. As commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, McAleenan supports Trump's tough stance on the southern border. McAleenan is never elevated above the status of "acting" secretary and turns in his resignation in October 2019.

September 9, 2020: In his State of the Homeland Address, Acting Secretary Chad Wolf addresses the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the most formidable and unpredictable threats the nation has faced. He places blame on both China and the World Health Organization for the spread of the virus, making the following statement:

"Due to what we now know was China’s irresponsible response, COVID-19 was permitted to become the worst global pandemic in more than 100 years. Along with the World Health Organization, their actions were inept, their response too slow."

He then praises President Trump's "decisive and rapid action" and commends the efforts of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in keeping Americans safe and the virus contained.

February 2, 2021: Alejandro Mayorkas is chosen to take over as Homeland Security Secretary. Born in Cuba, he is the first immigrant and person of Latin American heritage to hold this position. In March of 2021, he announces that the U.S. is experiencing a record-breaking surge in immigration and that the Department of Homeland Security is working tirelessly to prevent undocumented people from crossing the U.S. border without citizenship papers and place unaccompanied children back with their families.


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Murse, Tom. "Department of Homeland Security History." ThoughtCo, May. 3, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, May 3). Department of Homeland Security History. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "Department of Homeland Security History." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 3, 2023).