Comment November 2005

Things Left Undone

Why has an administration that talks so much about homeland security been so unable to secure the homeland?
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Imagine if, in advance of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of trucks had been waiting with water and ice and medicine and other supplies. Imagine if 4,000 National Guardsmen and an equal number of emergency aid workers from around the country had been moved into place, and five million meals had been ready to serve. Imagine if scores of mobile satellite-communications stations had been prepared to move in instantly, ensuring that rescuers could talk to one another. Imagine if all this had been managed by a federal-and-state task force that not only directed the government response but also helped coordinate the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and other outside groups.

Actually, this requires no imagination: it is exactly what the Bush administration did a year ago when Florida braced for Hurricane Frances. Of course the circumstances then were very special: it was two months before the presidential election, and Florida's twenty-seven electoral votes were hanging in the balance. It is hardly surprising that Washington ensured the success of "the largest response to a natural disaster we've ever had in this country." The president himself passed out water bottles to Floridians driven from their homes.

What is surprising, though, is that performing to this standard should be the exception for governmental departments whose raison d'être is high performance at times of crisis. The failure to anticipate the ravages of Hurricane Katrina has for weeks been the object of trenchant observation. Some have pointed out that federal funding for bolstering the levees was denied, and that federal assets were not made available before the hurricane. The indictment goes on and on. But it is important to discern the larger pattern of neglect, visible not only in Katrina but also in the aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq War.

The problem behind the negligent response to Katrina certainly begins with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, now buried in a big department, its staff reduced by 10 percent and its budget cut. (Today the agency is run by the previous director's former college roommate, a political appointee, whose past executive experience consists of running an international association concerned with Arabian horses.) But the issues go beyond FEMA to the agency's adoptive parent, the Department of Homeland Security.

After opposing the creation of the department, the Bush administration flip-flopped under public pressure and decided that it was a great idea. There were always signs, however, that the administration did not really mean it. Initially the department was to be revenue-neutral—that is, it would receive no new resources. When Congress insisted on pork-barrel appropriations with some play money for every state and city, the administration went along. But although many new programs were launched, few were ever brought to fruition. The department has never produced a multi-year plan based on actual requirements—a path to achieve specific, measurable goals. None of our vulnerabilities—on our borders, or in our transportation system, our chemical plants, our energy facilities, our ports—have been significantly diminished. And now we see that our ability to deal with the aftermath of disasters, whatever their cause, has actually regressed since the mid-1990s, when FEMA was an independent agency with cabinet status, run by competent and nonpartisan personnel.

Why has an administration that talks so much about terrorism and homeland security demonstrated so little competence when it comes to securing the homeland? Part of the reason is management style: the president says he sees his role as that of a CEO, but he performs like a non-executive chairman of the board, not a hands-on supervisor. What is more, the White House inner tribe believes that a strong Department of Homeland Security is not only unnecessary but even antithetical to the administration's political philosophy and interests.

Three reasons for this antipathy are often heard, and they certainly account for part of the White House outlook. First, the administration asserts that two thirds or three quarters of al-Qaeda's managers have been captured or killed, and that al-Qaeda must therefore be on the ropes. Why spend vast sums defending against it? The counterargument, of course, comes in the form of the recent terrorist attacks in Madrid, Istanbul, Taba, London, Bali, Riyadh, Sharm el Sheik, and Casablanca—all the work of al-Qaeda and its allies.

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