In early August, as George W. Bush was beginning a monthlong working vacation at his Texas ranch, he told reporters, “We learned a lesson on September the 11th, and that is, our nation is vulnerable to attack. And we’re doing everything we can to protect the homeland.” Everything we can. That was a bold statement. But it was not accurate. Indeed, it was one of the more galling misrepresentations of his presidency, for crucial areas of homeland security–ports, chemical plants, emergency response, biodefense–are not getting adequate attention or funding. Two years after the nation’s vulnerability was exposed, at the price of 3,000 lives, everything is not being done. Why? Because, in part, of the Administration’s strategic and ideological assumptions.
Here are a few recent and troubling indicators:
§ In June a Council on Foreign Relations task force–headed by former Republican Senator Warren Rudman–issued a report noting that “the United States remains dangerously ill-prepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil.” According to this study, most fire departments are short on radios and breathing apparatuses and only 10 percent are able to handle a building collapse. Police departments across the country lack the protective gear necessary to secure a site struck by a weapon of mass destruction. Most public health labs do not have the personnel or equipment to respond to a chemical or biological attack. The task force estimated the country will fall $98.4 billion short in funding needs for emergency responders over the next five years. And a study released by RAND in August essentially seconded the CFR task force report.
§ According to a June report by the Century Foundation’s Homeland Security Project, “State and local governments have complained that they cannot improve their preparedness without more money. The federal government promised $3.5 billion in aid, but only $2.2 billion has been made available so far.”
§ In June Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced about $300 million in funding for improving security at ports. The Coast Guard, though, has estimated that $1 billion is needed. Ports throughout the United States have asked for nearly that much to finance 1,380 security projects. “Any and all funding is helpful, but [the money provided] really doesn’t even come close to what is needed,” Maureen Ellis, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Port Authorities, told the Baltimore Sun. Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, worked on a CFR terrorism study that preceded the report on emergency responders. He complains that the government has spent only about $10 million on security for maritime containers. “We’ve invested so little to date,” he warns.
§ A review conducted by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan good-government outfit, found that the government is drastically short on medical and scientific employees for its biodefense programs.
§ In late July the Transportation Security Administration asked Congress for permission to reduce its air marshal program by 20 percent, at a time when the Bush Administration was issuing warnings about hijackings. To counter the ensuing bad PR, Ridge declared there would be no reduction in the program. (He later announced its reassignment to another agency.) Since the TSA has received nearly $1 billion less than it had requested, it has been forced to implement other program cuts.
§ The Bush Administration and Congress have yet to take action to enhance security at chemical plants. More than 100 facilities nationwide handle chemicals that, if released, could threaten a million or so people, and there are 15,000 other chemical sites to worry about. Yet no security standards have been established for these sites. The White House is supporting Senate legislation that would require chemical firms to conduct their own security assessments and has opposed a more stringent bill by Democratic Senator Jon Corzine that would grant Homeland Security the power to order specific security measures. Almost a year ago, Ridge himself said that voluntary industry efforts would not be sufficient to protect the public. Yet that’s the Administration’s approach. In March the General Accounting Office declared that “the federal government has not comprehensively assessed the chemical industry’s vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks.” Six months later, no such assessment has been made.