The Futility of "Homeland Defense"

Don't even try to close the holes in a country, and a society, designed to be porous

Get over thinking that America can be made safe. Defending a country as big and commercially robust as the United States raises profound, and probably insurmountable, issues of scale. There has been much talk of "Israelifying" the United States, but America has about forty-seven times as many people as Israel, and roughly 441 times the amount of territory to be defended. New Jersey alone is 753 square miles bigger than Israel, and home to nearly 2.5 million more people. Beyond problems of size, it's all too reasonable to assume that America won't be safe. Righting various asymmetries merely designs—as opposed to prevents—the next attack. When one target is shored up, nimble transnational cells that can turn on a dime simply find new bull's-eyes. Up against those practical realities, homeland security is the national version of the gas mask in the desk drawer—something that lets people feel safer without actually making them so.

If America is riddled with holes and targets, it's because a big society designed to be open is hard to change—impossible, probably. In 2000 more than 350 million non-U.S. citizens entered the country. In 1999 Americans made 5.2 billion phone calls to locations outside the United States. Federal Express handles nearly five million packages every business day, UPS accounts for 13.6 million, and until it became a portal for terror, the Postal Service processed 680 million pieces of mail a day. More than two billion tons of cargo ran in and out of U.S. ports in 1999, and about 7.5 million North Americans got on and off cruise ships last year.

Group targets are plentiful. There are eighty-six college and professional stadiums that seat more than 60,000 people, and ten motor speedways with capacities greater than 100,000; the Indianapolis Motor Speedway seats more than 250,000. Few other countries offer the opportunity to take aim at a quarter million people at once. Also plentiful are tall buildings—until just yesterday the dominant symbol of civic pride. Fifty of the hundred tallest buildings in the world are on U.S. soil. Minneapolis, a mid-size city that doesn't leap to mind as a target, has three of them. And one of its suburbs has the largest shopping mall in the country, the Mall of America, with at least 600,000 visitors a week.

As for trained personnel to defend our borders and targets, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which oversees the inspection of half a billion people a year, has only 2,000 agents to investigate violations of immigration law. The Postal Service has only 1,900 inspectors to investigate the misuse of mail. According to one estimate, it would take 14,000 air marshals to cover every domestic flight—more than the total number of special agents in the FBI. The former drug czar General Barry McCaffrey has pointed out that at least four different agencies oversee 303 official points of entry into the United States. After staffing increases over the past three years there are 334 U.S. Border Patrol agents guarding the 4,000 miles of Canadian border. The nation has 95,000 miles of shoreline to protect. "No one is in charge," McCaffrey says.

In all the discussion of building a homeland-security apparatus, very little attention has been paid to the fundamental question of whether 100 percent more effort will make people even one percent safer. The current version of America can no more button up its borders than mid-empire Britain could. Not just cultural imperatives are at stake. America makes its living by exporting technology and pop culture while importing hard goods and unskilled labor. The very small percentage of unwanted people and substances that arrive with all the people and things we do want is part of the cost of being America, Inc.

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Drug Wars
The companion Web site to a PBS Frontline special about America's war on drugs. Includes profiles of anti-drug warriors, interviews, the transcript of a symposium, and more.

This is not the first time a President has declared a war within U.S. borders. In 1969 President Richard Nixon promised a "new urgency and concerted national policy" to combat the scourge of drugs—an initiative that has lurched along for more than three decades, growing to the point where the government spent $18.8 billion in 2000 trying to solve America's drug problem.

The drug war is progressing only marginally better than the one in Vietnam did. Adolescent use of most drugs has tailed off in the past year or two, but the hard-core population of 10 to 15 million American users can always find narcotics—and at a price that continues to drop. From 1981 to 1998 the price of both cocaine and heroin dropped substantially, while the purity of both drugs rose. From 1978 to 1998 the number of people dying from overdoses doubled, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The Drug Enforcement Agency estimates that 331 tons of cocaine were consumed in the United States in 2000.

Counterterrorism is the ultimate zero-tolerance affair. Yet the same federal assets deployed in the war on drugs—the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs, the INS, the Border Patrol, the CIA, the FBI, and the DEA—are the first and last lines of defense in this new war. The fight against terror involves a triad that drug warriors can recite in their sleep: global source management, border interdiction, and domestic harm reduction.

In both wars human ingenuity is a relentless foe. Create a new blockade and some opportunist will survey the landscape for an alternative path. "What the war on drugs tells us," says Eric E. Sterling, of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, "is that people motivated by the most elementary of capitalist motives are constantly testing and finding ways to get in. Terrorists are as motivated as the most avaricious drug importer, if not more—and they are not going to be deterred by whatever barriers are put up."

Less than ten miles southwest of where the World Trade Center towers stood, the part of the Port of New York and New Jersey that occupies sections of Newark and Elizabeth is back to work. On the day I went there in October, straddle carriers—leggy, improbable contraptions that lift and cradle containers—buzzed around in the shadow of the Monet, a large cargo ship. The Monet is a floating lesson in friction-free commerce. It is operated by CMA CGM, a French company, but owned by the U.S. subsidiary of a German firm; it is registered in Monrovia, and it sails under the Liberian flag. Like everything else in view, it's massive, capable of holding 2,480 twenty-foot-long container units—the kind familiar from flatbed trucks and freight trains. It left Pusan, Korea, on September 19, stopping in three Chinese cities before sailing across the Pacific and through the Panama Canal and coming to rest in New Jersey on October 22.

The Port of New York and New Jersey is no less international. It's the busiest port on the East Coast. In 2000 the port moved approximately 70 million tons of general and bulk cargo, the equivalent of three million containers, from hundreds of cities around the globe, and half a million freshly built cars. The large containers it processes are stuffed, sealed, and tagged in far-flung locations, and their contents move, mostly unchecked, into the hands of consumers. A conga line of trains and trucks snakes out of the port, bound for a metropolitan market of some 18 million people.

Smuggling goods in containers probably started the day after shipping goods in them did. In a sting last January, U.S. Customs and the DEA seized 126 pounds of heroin concealed in twelve bales of cotton towels on a container ship at the port. That same month two men were charged with importing 3.25 million steroid pills that were seized during a customs examination of a container shipped from Moldavia. And in May of 1999 the DEA and Customs seized 100 kilograms of cocaine hidden under 40,000 pounds of bananas in two refrigerated containers. Sometimes the cargo isn't cargo at all. In October, Italian authorities found a suspected terrorist—an Egyptian-born Canadian dressed in a business suit—ensconced in a shipping container. His travel amenities included a makeshift toilet, a bed, a laptop computer, two cell phones, a Canadian passport, security passes for airports in three countries, a certificate identifying him as an airline mechanic, and airport maps. The container was headed for Toronto from Port Said, Egypt.

Before September 11 only about two percent of all the containers that move through ports were actually inspected. At Port Newark-Elizabeth there is a single giant on-site x-ray machine to see inside the containers; since September 11 two portable machines have been brought in to supplement it. The Customs Service enforcement team has been temporarily increased by 30 percent, but even that means that a mere 100 inspectors are responsible for more than 5,000 containers every day. The service has been on Alert Level One, which theoretically means that more containers are being inspected. But not even that vigilance—let alone the overtime—can continue indefinitely.

By reputation and appearance, the port is extremely well run, and it had tightened up security even before September 11. In the mid-1990s port officials began requiring every incoming truck driver to obtain an ID badge. One fall morning a man who appeared to be a Sikh, in a brilliant-orange turban and a lengthy beard, drew double takes from the other truckers—as he would anyplace else—when he stopped by the administration building to get his credential. When I was there, foreign crews were restricted from leaving their ships. The Coast Guard required ninety-six hours' notice before a ship arrived, and boarded every vessel before it was allowed into port. Two tugs accompanied each ship on its way in; if the ship were to head toward, say, a bridge support or some other target, the tugs would muscle the ship away.

But commerce, by definition, requires access. The port offers obvious targets because it is a place of business, not a fortified military installation. Tanks of edible oils sit behind a single cyclone fence; tankers of orange-juice concentrate from Brazil stand unguarded in parking lots. Two squad cars, one belonging to the port and the other on loan from the Department of Corrections, were parked at one of the port's major intersections, but anyone can drive around much of the facility without having to pass a single checkpoint. A train moves in or out of the port four times a day, crossing under the New Jersey Turnpike and through a tangle of bridges and elevated freeways that carries 630,000 cars every day. Just across the turnpike, Newark Airport handles roughly 1,000 flights a day.

Testifying one month after the September attacks, Rear Admiral Richard Larrabee, the port commerce director, told a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee, "As a port director, I cannot give you or my superiors a fair assessment today of the adequacy of current security procedures in place, because I am not provided with information on the risk analysis conducted to institute these measures."

If a container holding heroin slips into the United States, the street price may go down, gangs may be enriched, and drug use may rise. If that same container held chemical or biological agents, or a nuclear weapon, the social costs would be incalculable. Doing nothing to deter such events would be foolish, but doing everything possible would be more foolish still. "There are two things to be considered with regard to any scheme," Jean Jacques Rousseau once observed. "In the first place, 'Is it good in itself?' In the second, 'Can it be easily put into practice?'" In the case of homeland security the answers are yes, and absolutely not.

Some measures, both quotidian and provident, will be taken. Practical approaches to making air travel safe again will emerge incrementally. Newly integrated databases will prevent a recurrence of the dark comedy of errors that allowed many of the hijackers into the country in the first place. Postal workers, it is to be hoped, will be tested for the presence of biological agents with the same alacrity that senators are. But the culture itself will not be re-engineered. America will continue to be a place of tremendous economic dynamism and openness.

At the port the country's muscular determination to remain in business is manifest on every loading dock. But if one looks hard enough, the cost of openness is there to see. In a quiet spot amid the industrial bustle—behind Metro Metals, on the north side of the port facility—is a nasty clump of twisted metal. Some of the girders from the World Trade Center, another brawny symbol of U.S. economic strength that also happens to be owned by the Port Authority, have come to rest here. The stink of that day—the burnt smell of implacable mayhem—hangs near, reminding us that great symbols make irresistible targets.