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.
So Bush is wrong. Not all steps are being taken. His White House has even opposed certain security measures. For example, the Administration has blocked legislation being pushed by Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, that would require automated or manual screening of cargo shipped on passenger planes. Currently, most of this cargo–unlike travelers’ checked baggage–is not screened. The House approved Markey’s amendment by a 278-to-146 vote. But the Senate–pressed by the aviation industry and the White House–has ignored the issue. On the larger front, in July, Senator Robert Byrd and other Senate Democrats proposed adding $1.75 billion to the Department of Homeland Security budget–including about $730 million for first-responders, $602 million for port and transportation security, $100 million for examining air cargo and $80 million for handling chemical weapons attacks. The package was defeated on a mostly party-line vote, 50 to 43.
The question is not whether the government under Bush is adopting all obvious precautions, but why it is not. Rudman says the answer is “very complicated” and that it is difficult to push “a government this size to move with alacrity.” He notes that the government has yet to conduct a comprehensive examination of the nation’s domestic vulnerabilities and needs. “With national defense,” he explains, “if there’s a crisis and a need for two more air wings, the Pentagon does a requirement study and presents a case. We haven’t had a requirement study on homeland security. Until that’s done, you tend to throw money at it helter-skelter.” Shouldn’t reviewing the risks and creating a plan be a fundamental post-9/11 responsibility of the Administration? “I’m not being critical of anyone,” Rudman adds. Not explicitly, that is.
No doubt, bureaucratic sclerosis is partly to blame. The Department of Homeland Security has been so busy merging various entities into one superagency that it’s a wonder it can find the time to put out color-coded terrorism alerts. And one good example of bureaucratic lack of imagination was provided (unintentionally) by Al Martinez-Fonts, a top Ridge aide, in an interview for PBS’s NOW With Bill Moyers this past March. Asked why the government had not moved to regulate security at chemical plants, he replied that on September 11 “it was not chemical plants that were blown up.”
But the continuing gaps in domestic security are also a result of the biases of Bush and his lieutenants. “We’re responding dysfunctionally to the new threat environment,” Flynn comments. As an example, he notes, “There is no means of saying, Will one dollar on missile defense be better spent on preparing the local public-health-system response to a bioattack? If there is a smallpox attack, it could be equivalent to a nuclear missile attack.” What inhibits rational planning and management, he asserts, is that the Bush Administration has an ideological objection to a strong federal role in domestic security. Much of the crucial infrastructure–perhaps more than 90 percent of it–is in the hands of commercial interests. If the Administration were serious about making Americans more secure, it would have to intervene forcefully in the private sector, which would likely raise industry costs. “The Administration has made it very clear it is not interested in regulation,” Flynn says. “So much of homeland security then ends up being just a talkfest.” Flynn characterizes the White House attitude this way: “Homeland security costs too much money and involves too much government, so we have to go straight to the source”–that is, the terrorists. “It’s a seductive argument,” he adds. “We can deal with the problem over there and don’t have to conduct assessments and make investments here…. But we’ll never succeed at eliminating these problems at the source and go around the planet and identify every possible angry young man who has the means to do what happened on 9/11. It’s a fool’s game.”
Ivo Daalder, a Brookings Institution scholar, agrees, noting that a conceptual obsession hinders the Bush Administration’s domestic security actions: “These guys think that if you get rid of the tyrants, you solve the problem.” The Bush crowd, he suggests, really does–to an extent–consider the true source of evildoing to be not Al Qaeda and other on-the-ground terrorists but regimes that supposedly back them, even if the evidence does not support this position. “We analysts and commentators have not understood the centrality of rogue states in their worldview,” Daalder maintains. “The mindset is, We cannot defend every target, so it’s better to go after those who would do us harm.” And that means zeroing in on Saddam Hussein and other rogue leaders. Both Flynn and Daalder point to the basic numbers to make their case. The Pentagon is receiving close to $400 billion; Homeland Security is in the mid-twenties range. “It’s pretty clear,” Daalder says. “One is fifteen times more important than the other.”
Is Bush, with his less-than-everything approach, assuming any political risk? “People cannot believe,” Flynn remarks, “that no one in the federal government has inspected security plans for chemical plants or that the US Coast Guard has conducted only ten port-vulnerability studies in the past year.” If there is another terrorist assault on the country, he adds, “there will be an accounting, and people will be shocked by how little has been done. The American people will be enraged.” Maybe not, says Daalder. “The American people cannot fathom that Bush isn’t doing everything. Another attack could either reinforce the notion that he’s trying to protect the country or that he’s incapable. I used to think this was a golden issue for Democrats: tax cuts for 1 percent of Americans or security for 100 percent. But the American people cannot comprehend that a US President is not doing all that is necessary and not spending all the money that needs to be spent.”
Bush might get away with misrepresenting his Administration’s efforts. But more important than whether he ends up paying for his hollow promises is the possibility that thousands of Americans, if not more, might bear the cost of his negligence and false assurances.