A number of challenges and systemic issues at the Department of Homeland Security have left the department vulnerable to outsize political interference and put it on shaky ground in terms of protecting the U.S. from terrorism and even continuing to exist, warns a new report by the Center for New American Security (CNAS).

“Recently, DHS law enforcement activities have proved susceptible to an inappropriate level of White House control and influence, beyond expected responsiveness to political leadership,” writes the report’s author, Carrie Cordero, a senior fellow and general counsel at CNAS. “While DHS as a whole was designed, in part, to be responsive to legitimate political priorities, its volume of political appointees and weak headquarters structure have shown significant signs of law enforcement activities appearing politically motivated.”

The large number of political appointees at DHS has limited development of a “substantial professional service corps” and meant a lack of consistency leadership at senior levels, she says.

Cordero highlights a number of weaknesses at DHS, including mission sets encompassed in its legacy components and agencies that goes well beyond its legislative charter that was more narrowly defined to make the nation safe from terrorism when it formally stood up in 2003.

Natural disasters, cyber security threats, border security and immigration enforcement, and pandemics have all risen as key priorities for DHS, Cordero highlights in the report, Reforming the Department of Homeland Security Through Enhanced Oversight & Accountability. She also says that the department is the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country but lacks the appropriate “oversight and accountability mechanisms” to oversee these responsibilities.

She recommends that Congress update the legislation creating DHS to include its missions beyond preventing terrorism and that the department’s leadership develop a “culture of compliance and oversight” with respect to the U.S. Constitution and the nation’s laws and that rules are followed. She also says that part of the accountability and oversight structure must encompass privacy and civil liberties protections.

“As a result of intense political pressure combined with weak internal controls, however, DHS is currently suffering from a severe public backlash to its operations, and even existence, which is detrimental to DHS’s ability to effectively perform its critical mission,” Cordero says. “Such a department or agency cannot operate effectively domestically without public confidence that its activities are conducted lawfully and appropriately.”

Cordero also recommends a stronger chain of command within the leadership structure at DHS, which she said resembles a “federated structure” where agency heads have a certain level of autonomy and the department’s leadership less control over operations and policy.

Comparing DHS to the intelligence community, where the Office of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) coordinates budgets and policies but not operations, Cordero said “a DNI-like framework is inadequate to ensure that sufficient oversight and accountability exist across the sub-agencies.”

Disjointed congressional oversight of DHS is another shortcoming that Cordero addresses, noting that more than 100 congressional committees and subcommittees have jurisdiction over different portions of the department. Consolidating congressional oversight of DHS is the only major recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that hasn’t been implemented, she points out.

In the near-term, Cordero suggests that congressional appropriators, working with the two primary Senate and House authorizing committees for DHS, see to it that the department’s internal weaknesses are dealt with by linking funding approvals to the development of appropriate guidelines and policies.