The Department of Homeland Security, created to better safeguard the nation from terrorist strikes after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, has garnered mixed reviews, many negative and some positive, on accomplishing that goal.
In existence for a mere six months, the new department has been dogged by charges of penny-pinching, failing to consolidate terrorist watch lists, and unstable leadership.
But it has also received praise for meeting difficult, congressionally-mandated deadlines, restructuring immigration agencies, and aggressively working to improve security at the nation's ports.
"We are more secure and better prepared than we were two years ago," Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said last week.
"Each and every day, we rise to a new level of readiness and response," he said.
Some experts, however, say that many of the department's efforts are cosmetic, as exemplified by the five-color terror alert system started last year to help guide government response to terrorist threats.
"For the most part, it's pretty meaningless to average Americans," said Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Sometimes, the department sends out warnings about different threats, and the level doesn't move. Other times, it warns people about an imminent threat and tells them to go on with their lives and do nothing, he said.
"It smacks of the government just covering itself to make sure it doesn't get caught with its pants down like it did on 9-11," he said.
The alert system was criticized from the beginning for being too vague and geographically broad to be of much help to law enforcement or the public. But comedians and political cartoonists had a true field day earlier this year, after an orange "high" alert was accompanied by a government advisory that families buy duct tape and plastic sheeting to ward off a chemical attack.
One man in Connecticut covered his entire house with plastic. Hundreds of others emptied shelves at supermarkets and home delivery stores, stocking up on emergency supplies such as batteries and water.
"It was one of the worst things they could have done in terms of telling people how to prepare," Pena said.
Orange alerts have also been costly for cities and states, who complained for months that they were not getting promised federal money to pay for the increased security. Some towns pulled officers from jails to guard ports and other key infrastructure.
Ridge, who now makes light of the duct tape fiasco but never backed down from the recommendation, has acknowledged that the alert system may need a change, and said recently that future alarms might be narrowed to a specific city, state or region.
Uproar over the costs has eased somewhat as many cities and states have finally received millions in homeland-security grants previously stuck in bureaucratic pipelines.
But the distribution of homeland-security money is still a source of controversy as some states, such as Montana have received more per capita than others with more likely targets.
"Clearly that's a problem," said Phil Anderson, a senior associate for homeland security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
"If you don't have a platform for risk management, you can't allocate resources effectively," he said.