Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General (IG) Clark Kent Ervin spoke to POGO fellow Lauren Robinson last month from his new position at the Aspen Institute to discuss his two years at DHS.
POGO: You’ve been lauded for your frank and honest appraisals of DHS. Do you believe your not being invited back is a sort of punishment?
ERVIN: Well, not really. Clearly, I made myself unpopular in certain quarters of the department. [But] the news articles I’ve seen haven’t done a good job of explaining what happened. Really, the issue is that the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee never scheduled a vote on my confirmation, so I never got on to the Floor of the Senate. At the end of 2003, the President gave me a recess appointment, which is a very extraordinary thing. I would be IG now if at any time during 2003 or 2004, Senator Collins had scheduled a confirmation for me.
What are some examples of waste and inefficiency you’ve found at DHS?
There are so many. We did this undercover work where we found that it was still easier than it should have been after 9/11 to sneak guns and knives and bombs onto airplanes. We were able to confirm that ABC News was able to smuggle depleted – not weapons-grade – uranium into the United States. Even though Customs and border protection had inspected those containers, the Department missed it on two occasions. In terms of border security, they’re not catching as many people as they might if their systems were interoperable with the FBI’s. It’s entirely a DHS decision not to, the reason being the FBI takes ten fingerprints while DHS only takes two. When asked why, [DHS Under Secretary] Asa Hutchinson said it would be too time consuming. I don’t know why. It’s not five times more time consuming, you just put down all ten fingers instead of two!
What is your main concern for Homeland Security right now?
My main concern is that there has been a mindset at the senior level that has ignored problems or excused them. For example, [when ABC News smuggled uranium into the US] and the Department gives you the response, “well, we targeted the container and inspected it,” as opposed to admitting that they just didn’t find the uranium, that suggests a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ mentality. There are a lot of problems, and you’ve got to acknowledge them before you can begin to solve them.
Are we more our less vulnerable to a terrorist attack now?
We are safer than we were on 9/11. A number of things have been done since 9/11 that will help in the fight against terrorism, but we’re not as safe as we need to be, we’re not as safe as we can be, and we’re not as safe as we think we are.
Are you concerned for other public servants who may be discouraged from speaking forthrightly about inefficiencies and problems?
The Inspector General Act gives us a lot of power to do what I did, but there needs to be an amendment [to IG language] for Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, and CIA. Those IGs can be prevented from inspecting, auditing, or investigating matters if, in the judgment of the Cabinet Secretary, the IG’s doing so might compromise national security. That provision, to Secretary Tom Ridge’s great credit, was never invoked by him against me, but it could have been. And so we need to remove the temptation for Secretaries to use it. Such provisions are inconsistent with the notion of an independent Inspector General.
Any advice for your fellow public servants?
Well, just do your job and let the political chips fall where they may. Unless you’re willing to do that, it seems to me you shouldn’t take the job in the first place.