Comment November 2005

Things Left Undone

Why has an administration that talks so much about homeland security been so unable to secure the homeland?

Second, the administration points out that no major terrorist acts have occurred on American soil since 9/11. Clearly, we must be doing something right, they say, and maybe we don't need to do much more—at least not at home. Yet if the statements of the FBI and other agencies can be credited, terrorists have been assessing targets in locations as diverse as Las Vegas, Newark, Los Angeles, and Columbus.

Third, some who would defend the administration argue that the entire GDP could be poured into the bottomless pit of homeland security. Better, they say, to invest in intelligence to nail terrorists before they strike. Well, of course that's better; but as the second round of London subway bombings showed, not even knowing that an existing terrorist cell is going after a particular target means you will find the cell in time. Conversely, spending money and effort on countermeasures really can work: planned attacks on the Brooklyn Bridge and the U.S. consulate in Istanbul were thwarted because the defenses were good.

Beyond these surface explanations, however, lie bigger factors. One is simply that other administration policies regularly trump homeland security. Under a firearms policy largely dictated by the National Rifle Association, people on terrorist watch lists can and do buy guns in the United States without difficulty. Congress decided, over the objections of the FBI, that government records of who bought guns should not be kept for more than twenty-four hours. Health-care policy has contributed to the reduction in the number of beds in America's hospitals, reducing the surge capacity required to handle a catastrophe like Katrina, a biological-weapons attack, or a pandemic such as avian flu. Immigration policy seems designed mostly to provide American businesses and farms with millions of low-wage laborers, rather than to keep track of who is crossing our borders or living here illegally. Energy policy, particularly the new Energy Act, gives priority to building new fossil-fuel and nuclear facilities. Congress has just given the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission clear authority to locate highly volatile liquid-natural-gas ports—perfect terrorism targets—over the objections of city and state governments.

Moreover, the Bush administration simply dislikes spending money on many domestic initiatives, in contrast to its open-ended attitude toward military outlays and expeditions. Of all the new funding that went to national defense in the four years following 9/11, only 14 percent went to homeland security. People concerned about readiness on the home front have taken to comparing the cost of specific projects to the "burn rate" of spending on the war, as in this analysis published in Mother Jones: security upgrades for all subway and commuter-rail systems, or twenty days in Iraq; security upgrades for 361 U.S. ports, or four days in Iraq; explosives screening for all U.S. passenger-airline baggage, or ten days in Iraq.

The most compelling explanation for the lack of investment in domestic security comes from the president himself—over and over again. His strategy on terrorism, he says, is "to fight them over there [in Iraq], so that we do not have to fight them here at home." Spending on the war in Iraq greatly exceeds all federal spending on homeland security. But as most knowledgeable observers attest, the war is producing more terrorists than it is eliminating. One can be certain that they are learning the lessons of New Orleans—maybe faster than our government is.

Many Americans are familiar with a prayer of confession, perhaps learned in childhood, that includes the line "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done" and concludes, "Have mercy upon us." It is time we admit we have left things undone, and set about doing them. When the next breach occurs, we will be wishing that the federal agency at the forefront was a professional organization capable of mitigating a disaster, rather than being one itself.

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