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Editorial: Give Homeland Security an overall look

Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano visits the

Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano visits the Applied Science Foundation for Homeland Security in Bethpage. (Sept. 24, 2012) Credit: Howard Schnapp

As President Barack Obama vets candidates to be the next secretary of Homeland Security, he should make it a top priority to determine whether relying on such a sprawling bureaucracy to harden the nation against terrorist attacks is the best way to keep us safe.

Janet Napolitano, the third person to head the leviathan department since it was created after 9/11, announced Friday that she's stepping down after almost five years at the helm. She did a good job for New York, both in working to prevent additional terrorist attacks and to help the region recover from the devastation of superstorm Sandy. But that broad portfolio is emblematic of the key question for the next secretary.

With 240,000 employees, a $59-billion budget and nearly two dozen agencies -- including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration and even the Plum Island Animal Disease Center -- the department may be too big to respond optimally in a crisis. And it may be too lumbering to meet fast-changing needs in areas such as cybersecurity.

Before 9/11, its myriad responsibilities were scattered among numerous government departments, which did a poor job coordinating their efforts. The Department of Homeland Security was created on the advice of the 9/11 commission to address the structural weaknesses. That consolidation is better than the previous atomization. But 12 years after 9/11, it's time to assess whether a smaller, more sharply focused department would be more effective in preventing and responding to terrorist attacks. The threat has changed. Our response may need to as well.