How Fitting… Homeland Security’s Future Home: A Former Mental Hospital For Criminally Insane
Chris Mills frequently gives tours of St. Elizabeths Hospital, a former mental institution where the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is building a $4.5 billion headquarters. It’s the largest construction project in the District of Columbia since the Pentagon was completed in 1943. So there’s a lot of ground to cover. Mills prefers to chauffeur his guests around the place in a golf cart.
A cheerful 55-year-old with a neatly trimmed mustache, Mills, who is managing the project for DHS, tells visitors to look out for animals. There are loads. Herds of deer, a flock of wild turkeys, and a bald eagle reside in the fenced-in facility. They might not last long outside. St. Elizabeths is located in Anacostia, one of D.C.’s toughest neighborhoods. But they have little to fear inside the high-security fences. “It’s like the wild kingdom in here,” Mills says with a chuckle.
Then he’s off in his golf cart with his passengers. His boss, Jeffery Orner, DHS’s chief readiness support officer, who oversees all of the department’s real estate, has come along for the ride. There’s a DHS public-relations person on board, too. She sits in the back, smiling and saying nothing. Everybody is wearing hard hats and DHS safety vests.
As Mills meanders through the leafy campus on a splendid June morning, he explains that the headquarters is mission-critical. He says DHS is currently scattered in 50 locations throughout the capital. After its dismal performance in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the agency decided it would be better able to fight terrorists and respond to natural disasters if its leaders worked side by side in one place. “We really needed a consolidated headquarters,” Mills says.
Courtesy National ArchivesSt. Elizabeths’ Center Building, c. 1900
He explains that DHS will use many of the old hospital buildings on the 176-acre campus. He pulls up to the dining hall where inmates once took their meals. It has been painstakingly restored and will serve as a festive 300-seat cafeteria for Homeland Security employees. The kitchen has been completely refurbished and the dining room is now lit with hanging pastel-colored globes. “As you can see, this is ready to go,” says Mills proudly.
From there it’s a quick trip to the future seat of the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Until recently, that would have been Janet Napolitano, but she announced her retirement on July 12. Whoever runs DHS will occupy the former office of the St. Elizabeths asylum superintendent. They were surrounded by the inmates.
It isn’t ready, not by a long shot. There aren’t lights, for one thing. Mills passes out flashlights and leads the way inside. There are holes in the floors. The ceilings are collapsing in some areas. Mills says St. Elizabeths moved patients out of the building in the 1960s, but somebody forgot to turn off the heat. “The steam was left on for years and years and years and years,” Mills laments. “The building literally rotted from the inside. The floors collapsed on each other.”
“This renovation of this building would make a great HGTV episode,” Orner says, “except they tend to complete their work in one show.”
It’s a clever line, one that Orner has undoubtedly uncorked previously. But he raises an important issue. The project is moving slowly, even by the geologic standards of the U.S. government. It’s been plagued by delays and mounting costs. People might not even remember Napolitano when the building is completed, which might be around 2026.
In the months after Sept. 11, the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress decided that Americans would be safer from terrorists if they combined 22 federal agencies into a single unit—including the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Infrastructure Protection Center, the Federal Computer Incident Response Center, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, to name just a few. It was the largest reorganization of the federal government since the creation in 1947 of what would become the U.S. Department of Defense.
The new Department of Homeland Security would have 180,000 employees and a $36 billion budget, but its supporters promised it would be nimble. There were a few dissenters in Congress. One was Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican. “I gave a little speech at the time,” he remembers. “I said anyone who thinks you can combine 22 agencies and 200,000 people and it’s going to be more efficient and economical needs to have their head examined.”
He turned out to be prophetic. DHS became a study in mismanagement. The department’s top ranks swelled with appointees with questionable credentials. The most famous was Michael Brown, the former FEMA director who had been previously employed for a decade by the International Arabian Horse Association. There were frequent interagency tussles. For instance, two separate agencies—the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—were supposed to safeguard the nation’s peripheries together. It didn’t go well. “It’s vital to recognize that the two bureaus barely interact,” David Venturella, former director of ICE’s office of detention and removal operations, told a congressional committee in 2005. “When they do, they argue over budget, operations, and jurisdiction.” DHS’s goof-ups were spectacular and sometimes comical. In 2005, Congress chastised its Directorate of Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection for including mini-golf courses, petting zoos, and a bourbon festival alongside nuclear power plants on its list of places in danger of terrorist attacks. DHS also had a habit of entering into no-bid contracts with politically connected companies.