Things Left Undone

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

President George W. Bush on a tour of New Orleans, three weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, accompanied by Lousiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. (Susan Walsh / AP)

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.

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.