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Best Defense Is a Good Offense Say Homeland Security Experts - 2003-06-13

It’s estimated that the United States will spend hundreds-of-billions of dollars during the next decade for homeland security. How is the federal government doing in terms of getting anti-terror funding to state and local authorities?

Michael Scardaville is a homeland security analyst at The Heritage Foundation here in Washington. “We need to revamp how the federal government provides assistance to first responders,” he says, “fire fighters, cops, emergency medical services providers and, in many cases, those in the public health sector -- to ensure that grant programs are efficient and meet these peoples needs.”

Many homeland security analysts agree but caution that it won’t be easy. “I think we have to recognize that these are still the early days and that there is a lot to be done,” says Daniel Benjamin, who served on the National Security Council under former President Clinton and is now a terrorism analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies also here in Washington.

“We have been hurt,” he says, “by the fact that a lot of the money that was supposed to flow to first-responders -- the emergency services, the police, medical and fire fighting personnel who are supposed to deal with these problems -- got hung-up in political battles in Washington. There’s just a tremendous amount to do.”

But there’s near universal agreement among analysts that America will never be safe from terrorist attacks regardless of the resources and manpower devoted to homeland security. In an open society like the United States, there are vulnerabilities everywhere you turn -- schools, bridges, stadiums, factories. The list seemingly is endless.

And most analysts agree with Daniel Benjamin, who says that deciding which areas to protect is a daunting task.

“No one has yet figured out how we come up with the formula for deciding what the biggest vulnerabilities are,” he says. “For example, whether the costs of enduring a small chemical weapon attack or a large truck bomb would be greater, or whether our food supply is most vulnerable. And part of this thinking has to do with the question of how much we factor in the threat -- what al-Qaida, for example, thinks about. So there are many different factors here. And frankly, America’s best security minds are really just getting around to thinking about this and it’s going to require a set of guidelines, a way of proceeding that is unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

In the wake of the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington two years ago, the U.S. government has improved screening at America’s airports, but not without controversy. The Transportation Security Administration, which oversees airport security, recently met a congressional deadline to hire more than 50,000 workers, but it still hasn’t completed background checks on roughly half of its new screeners. And dozens of security personnel already have been found to have criminal records and have been suspended or fired.

Another concern involves the nation’s seaports. Some 360 facilities handle 95% of U.S. overseas trade. And ports such as Los Angeles and New York still are considered vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Michael Scardaville of The Heritage Foundation asks who’s responsible for defending America’s maritime system?

“You potentially have three influential officials who can lay claim to that issue,” he says. “You can have the Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, Admiral [James] Loy, come out and say, ‘Hey, I’m responsible for securing transportation. That’s my baby.’ You can have the United States Coast Guard come out and say, ‘Hey, we’re responsible for America’s waterways. That’s our job.’ And you can have the Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security come out and say, ‘Hey guys, both of you stop your quibbling. This is really my concern. I’m responsible for all aspects of border and transportation security.’ So nobody quite knows who is really in charge in that area.”

Barely four months old, the Department of Homeland Security was created to end bureaucratic battles such as this. The D.H.S. encompasses 22 federal agencies in an effort to coordinate intelligence gathering, law enforcement and emergency response to terrorist threats. It’s the biggest government reorganization since the Department of Defense was created more than half a century ago.

According to analyst Michael Scardaville, the new department faces a number of challenges.

“You look at the establishment of the Department of Defense in 1947,” he says. “Many people would argue that experiment didn’t really start to work until the late-1980’s; there are some people out there who would say it’s still not working. And I think that the Department of Homeland Security is going to face a similar transition. You have people set in their ways; you have turf interests within the bureaucracy; you have turf issues in Congress. Again, if you look at the example of the Department of Defense, it was able to fight the Korean War and to deter the Soviet Union. So it did succeed in its primary mission despite having inefficiencies associated with an extended transition.”

Daniel Benjamin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies also likens the creation of the D.H.S. to that of the Department of Defense. “I think it’s far more challenging than the creation of the Department of Defense was,” he says. “Unfortunately, one of the downsides of this kind of bureaucratic maneuver is that it will be a while before we are at the baseline we were at when the merger began. A lot of very talented people are spending their time dealing with issues related to the merger. Over the long haul, I hope we’ll be safer. We need to hope that the intelligence community and law enforcement have done a good enough job attacking the terrorists over the last 18 months and will continue to do so as to avert more acts of terrorism during the transition. It is not a very consoling thought, but it’s where we are right now.”

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies have devoted a great deal of attention to defending the United States against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism.

But most analysts agree that the next major attack on the U.S. could just as likely involve common firearms, truck bombs or, as was the case on September 11th, airplanes. The best defense of the American homeland, they argue, is a policy of deterrence and measured pre-emption.

Matthew Levitt is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a consultant to the U.S. government on counter-terrorism.

“It’s important to pre-emptively strike at those who intend to do us harm,” he says. “The war on terrorism, in fact, has been just that type of pre-emptive effort to deny terrorists the operating environment which they have enjoyed for so long in which they have been able to plan and execute the kind of attacks we saw on September 11th and in Bali and in Saudi Arabia. It’s critical to coordinate within the United States our domestic and international efforts among our own intelligence agencies and, in the larger picture, to coordinate our international efforts with our counterparts abroad.”

Coordinating intelligence gathering operations with our foreign allies is not an easy task says William Rosenau, a terrorism analyst at the RAND Corporation here in Washington. “First and foremost, it’s an intelligence matter,” he says. ““It’s expensive; it’s hard to do. It’s hard to find people who have the language skills, who are able to live abroad and blend in with the local environment and penetrate terrorist cells. But homeland security begins there. It’s not going to begin with policemen and firemen in rubber suits. That’s the last thing that you want.”

And, many analysts agree, therein lies the crux of homeland security. But the most significant progress in defending the U.S. against terrorist attacks may be psychological. As many observers point out, Americans now realize that they’re no longer immune from terrorism. The fact that they’re now vigilant is perhaps more important than any government program enacted so far.