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Thursday, September 29, 2005

Richard Clarke: Homeland Insecurity 

For several days after Hurricane Katrina, homeland security czar Michael Chertoff seemed to spend most of his time on camera, strolling through the wreckage of New Orleans, dodging questions about FEMA's lack of preparedness, focusing instead on the lessons he hoped to learn -- as if the death of thousands and the submersion of a major American city were nothing more than a dry run for the real catastrophes just around the corner. In the November Atlantic, Richard Clarke, counterterrorism chief under Clinton and (briefly) under Bush, raises the distressing possibility that Mr. Chertoff is not the only one who has learned a thing or two from his mistakes. Terrorists have televisions too:

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 . . . .

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 . . . .

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.
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