Congress Must Act Urgently to Repair Homeland Security

Posted June 1, 2004 at 4:59pm

Congress Must Act Last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft demonstrated vividly the dysfunctionality of our organizational structure to deal with homeland security. Ashcroft, of course, held a press conference to talk about the imminent threat posed by al Qaeda to the homeland, evidenced by increased “chatter” among its operatives determined to strike the U.S. soon and in a big way. However, no change in the security level was recommended or implemented.

[IMGCAP(1)]Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was not present, and soon indicated his surprise at the attorney general’s statement and displeasure at the lack of coordination. Before long, leaks from various intelligence and Homeland Security sources indicated that the “chatter” level mentioned by Ashcroft had been present for several weeks, with nothing particularly new in the period just before his press conference —and no obvious security or news reason to hold the press conference, just politics.

To be sure, the Ashcroft press conference didn’t bring a panic in the citizenry; most people probably paid little attention, knowing there wasn’t much they could do about it anyhow. It did reflect a reality we should be reminded of regularly: terrorism and the terrorists who want to kill us are still out there in sizable numbers, with the resources and guile and drive to accomplish their brutal goals. But this little incident tells us volumes more about the state of homeland security two years and nine months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And most of what it tells us is not reassuring.

The structures we have created to deal with this set of problems are not working very well, together or separately. This is not particularly the fault of the people in charge. The top officials we have at Justice, Homeland Security, the various intelligence services and in other departments are generally good, competent and focused public servants. But the massive nature of the reorganization that created Homeland Security, the year-plus of revolving door management in several of its top posts, the lack of urgency in many of our most vulnerable areas, the continuing jealousies and miscommunications between and among the various departments with responsibility for homeland security, the inability to coordinate among and between the federal government, state governments and localities, and the lack of adequate funding have all made the threat more ominous and the ability to respond to a serious attack more problematic than they should be.

If you can only read one book on this subject, read the forthcoming “America the Vulnerable” by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Stephen Flynn. Flynn is a former Coast Guard officer who was also a major figure on the prescient Hart-Rudman Commission. He is smart, balanced and sober. He is no alarmist, but his book will scare the you-know-what out of you.

Flynn gets your attention by laying out in devastating detail a plausible scenario for a truly devastating terrorist attack that would be much more far-reaching in its impact than 9/11. He then goes through some of the major festering problems and offers concrete solutions. Among the key problem areas: the more than fifteen million containers shipped every single day by vessel, truck or train around the world — huge numbers of them, forty-feet long and containing up to 65,000 pounds of materials or goods. Seven million of these containers arrived in U.S. ports in 2002. Most are never inspected.

The good news: 70 percent of them originated from or moved through only four large overseas terminal operators. With proper coordination and resources, we can use these large operators as gatekeepers operating through safe and secure facilities. But we have taken little more than baby steps towards this kind of comprehensive system since 9/11.

But we have not even taken baby steps to secure chemical and nuclear power plants, or the radioactive materials that are all over hospitals, labs and universities and can be used to make dirty bombs or comparable biological weapons.

We have done nowhere near enough to equip first responders to deal with radiological, chemical or biological attacks, or to train them to recognize symptoms, much less treat them. We have not funded them adequately, and when we have, state governments have sometimes snapped up the money for their own priorities.

In all this, Congress has been more harm than help. It has built-in formulas to allocate homeland security money that meet distributive political needs more than the widely varying threat profiles of states and communities. It has provided little meaningful oversight for homeland security. It has allowed more than 80 panels to claim some jurisdiction over homeland security, and to harass top Homeland Security officials to testify so much that they have nowhere near enough time left over for their real jobs of protecting the nation. House and Senate leaders, who should have stepped in and limited the exposure of Ridge, James Loy and other top Homeland Security officials to Congressional nitpicking — while making sure that they were subjected to real and tough oversight — have failed to do so.

Just as Gary Hart and Warren Rudman warned us before 9/11, the question of another horrific terrorist attack on our homeland is not if but when. And the “when” is likely to be sooner rather than later. We need money to fix the most important vulnerabilities — and a focus by Congress to make these things happen. We don’t have a lot of time.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.