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A Conversation With Steve Flynn

Steve Flynn, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of "America the Vulnerable: How Our Government is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism," sat down with the Center for American Progress this spring to discuss important homeland security issues. The following are excerpts of Flynn's comments:

September 11 is how warfare will be fought in the foreseeable future. That is, the use of catastrophic terrorism against the non-military elements of U.S. power. Whether it's al Qaeda or anybody else, that's where it's going. And I substantiate that stark statement around what I think is a compelling fact of life: the United States this year will spend more on conventional military capability than the next 30 nations combined and by 2008, on the current track, we'll be spending more than the entire world combined.

Now, we think about the British at the height of their empire when the sun never set. Their goal was to have two capital ships for every one ship that a great power competitor might be able to muster. And here we sit, straddling this new century and we have more than the next 30 nations combined. Thus, there are three possibilities about the future of warfare:

They who would take us on are very dumb adversaries.

War is obsolete – anybody who gets in our way will immediately recognize how powerful we are and will run away, flag-up and say, what can we do to get the United States off our backs.

Warfare changes.

What was demonstrated on 9/11 was the military value of engaging in catastrophic terrorism. The military value is the potential to create societal and economic disruption on a wide enough scale so that you can damage the power of the adversary. That tactic differs from terrorism as we've been largely conceptualizing and thinking about it, which is basically a high-end attention-seeking exercise. Terrorism involves doing something spectacular to get people's attention so you can then say, "Let my prisoners loose," or "Stop backing this guy."

The acceptance that catastrophic terrorism will be used as a tactic of warfare should force us to fundamentally rethink how national security is done in our age. Unfortunately, this is something that hasn't processed inside the craniums of those who are paid to do national security.

The pervasive view of the current administration in the national security world is very much built on the realist paradigm: that at the end of the day, these folks couldn't do the bad things they do without some kind of state sponsorship. For them, states remain very much a primary actor, the use of force directed at a state is a form of deterrent, and the best way to manage this new threat environment, according to what Scott McClellan tells us every day, is to go to the source.

The reality is the failed state phenomenon: that there are big swaths of real estate that nobody's in charge of. It's helpful if the government is sympathetic one, and two, that non-states can self-finance and increasingly access the most lethal forms of weaponry and they can operate globally without state sponsorship. This is something that folks born and raised in the Cold War are having a heck of a time coming to grips with.

Now, rather than confronting that reality immediately in the aftermath of 9/11, let's highlight the three core things that happened on 9/11:

They were here

They used the stuff here against us

Most of the disruption is what we did to ourselves here.

This administration decided the way in which to deal with 9/11 was to take it over there. Go to the central front – Afghanistan – go after the state sponsorship.

You could almost hear the sigh of relief when Tom Ridge got this nod two weeks later when they created the Department of Homeland Security. They said, here's the guy, he's gonna take care of all this new stuff. And you could almost hear the Defense Department, whew, and the State Department, whew, and the national intelligence community all wiping their brow, saying, I guess we don't have to do all that new stuff. We'll do what we're geared to do which is look for bad guys overseas and mobilize forces and direct air and isolate rogues nations and such. And this new, whatever it is, that's a domestic function, that's going to be managed best by coordination and everyone singing kumbayah and we'll have Tom Ridge and he'll be a czar and it'll all happen there.

So in terms of reallocation of resources, energy and national priority, we essentially took the existing national security apparatus and put it on steroids, and we cobbled together what we call homeland security assets and claimed that just by bringing them together under one roof we'll get these magical synergies and all will be well on the domestic side.

The reality, that is, a more scary threat, is that if you want to go after U.S. power, you have to after the infrastructure that underpins that power, which are global networks. These are networks of transportation, energy, finance, of information, of labor. These are global networks which were dealing with four overarching imperatives over the last two or three decades, particularly in the post-Cold War era:

We want the system to be as open as possible; we privatize, we liberalize and we globalize in order to bring as many players into the system as possible, with the assumption that this brings great benefits.

We want it as low-cost as possible.

We want it as efficient as possible.

We want it as reliable as possible.

We have global networks that are open and exposed with very little in the way of security, and an adversary that believes the only way to go after U.S. power is to go after non-military aspects of it's power. The adversary realizes that by going into these networks, he could not only exploit them to move stuff around, but could target them as well. And our response to dealing with that is for the national security community to ignore the global networks as their issue because they're doing their traditional stuff and for homeland security to say we'll look at those networks, but only inside our borders. It is like hiring a network security manager who says, "I'm just going to protect the server next to my desk."

National Security vs. Homeland Security

We have a problem. In every other country on the planet, national security does a dual duty: it protects the nation and – if there's any power left over – it protects the interests outside the nation. Only the United States of America does national security by doing that second thing first. We didn't have to do the first because we got so used to the fact that if we took care of problems over there, we wouldn't have to deal with them here. We go to the source.

We haven't had a national conversation that says, should we rethink our very definitions and thinking on national security? This dilemma creates real problems for us as a civil society, used to having security be waters edge out, not coming on shore, but does that make sense?

We're not willing to have this conversation. We should be saying, if the nature of warfare has changed, the nature of the way that the United States operates and participates in these global networks should change. But we haven't begun the conversation. We have a national security strategy and a homeland security strategy. We have a national security council and a homeland security council, we're keeping that line.

Nowhere in our current construct will we ever have a debate that says, will another dollar of missile defense be better spent going to a state public health service to see if they can detect a biological agent? A bio-threat will kill a hell of a lot more Americans than the missile, but we can't do that because the OMB, the Congressional oversight, the entire budget process in the national security realm is entirely cordoned off from this homeland security which is put in the realm of discretionary spending with all the other domestic priorities, which we really don't treat much like priorities. So in that context, we're not having a recalibration of resources because we're not coming to grip with this conversation.

Federal Government vs. State Government vs. Private Sector

The next core critique I'll lay out regards the federalism debate that America must have. The administration states quite categorically that protecting the critical infrastructure which is 85 percent private owned is in local and state hands. And therefore it's the local and state and private sector's responsibility to protect that stuff.

The federal government's job is coordination and communication and jump starting, so to speak. We don't want the federal government in the states' business by telling them how they should secure and protect themselves. We don't need to tell your police department, fire department, what they need to be doing. We don't need to tell governors how to run their state service.

Private sector, you own this infrastructure, if it's targeted, you'll be hurt, the bottom line would presumably be hurt; you have your own interest to protect yourself. The federal government isn't in the business of regulating, of requiring standards because that would be a bad thing, intruding in the marketplace. Go forth and protect yourself. What happened for almost a year after 9/11, is what I call "the Period of Patriotic Silence." Basically these sectors waited because they thought this national security, war on terror might have some federal leadership role here, and the federal government is going to put some money behind this rhetoric, and so some resources will start to flow and some guidance will start to flow. And it took about 18 months for people to say, nothing's coming?

The government had a federalism conversation that none of you were invited to. It was: "You Lose." Take care of this yourself.

With the private sector there's no market case for investing in protecting the infrastructure. Because it's the classic tragedy of the commons. There's no single private entity that owns all this critical infrastructure in the global network. Security has costs. They absorb the costs to protect their part of the sector and they look to the left and the right and they see free riders who are not paying those costs.

Where we see it's most dysfunctional is in certain areas-like ports. Why is the administration not putting any money into ports? Ports are state and local activities and states and locals are landlords who give multi-year leases to the private sector. So ports are a private, local responsibility.

So let's look where the big ports are: California, New York – and how are their budgets doing? Hemorrhaging red ink! Arnold isn't working overtime on port security right now. He's got a few other things going on there in California.

The Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach brings in 43 percent of all the containers that come into this country. That's potentially 40 percent of our manufacturing and retail sector moving their boxes through that port. So it's just the responsibility of property tax payers of Los Angeles County to pay for this? That's what the current concept is. Yep, you guys take care of that. It's your port. Forty percent of the boxes that come into the port aren't even going to California; they're going to points beyond.

We know there's a line that needs to be drawn here, but let's have a conversation about it, because it's drawn in the wrong place. So we're not seeing this in a global context, we're not seeing the national security paradigm challenged; we're not having this federalism talk.

The Role of America's Citizens

The last thing I would critique is that we have utterly failed to address a civil polity in any of this. What's our mission as patriotic Americans in the post 9-11 world? Shop and travel. In the event of orange alert, shop and travel. And be alert.

They can't focus the response, they can't manage it. So you get this crazy disconnect where we say this periodically to the American people, don't worry about it, we've got it all under control.

I argue that this is another part of the Cold War aftermath, where we fell into this paternalistic view of security being an exclusively federal government responsibility. In the Cold War, it was really the only way it could work. You and I couldn't really do much in civil society to protect ourselves from thermonuclear war.

We actually have another tradition that lasted for many generations – the minuteman tradition. The notion that the basic responsibility of citizenry when your nation's in danger is that you become part of the process of securing that nation. I don't want people to put down their ploughshares and pick up muskets. But I think that we can tap a reservoir of willingness, and certainly we did in the Second World War. That was not something that made us inherently un-American.

I think the only way you can get there from here is you have to come clean about vulnerabilities. You have to talk candidly to the American people and say, this has been a multi-year in the making set of problems here, there has not been much as a federal government that we have been able to do to eliminate this risk in a new environment. And there are lines that we have to debate with the civil polity about where you want to draw, like federalism, like how many resources you want to spend and how much risk you're willing to live with. So here's the reality, we don't have a plan for chemical industry, and for a lot of things, we haven't even looked at their plans. We don't have inspectors to go and do this. Agroterrorism? We can't even find the one mad cow. It's a wide open system. Ports? Geez, we didn't plan for port security. The Coast Guard stopped doing that back in the Second World War. We didn't expect the Germans to pop out of submarines, we stopped doing it.

We're going to have to make some hard choices about what we invest in and what we don't and how much is enough. So let's all roll up our sleeves because this is the new warfare and we have to confront this. Draw you into the process: let's go forward. When you fall into the trap that these folks have fallen into of now feeling like they have to constantly reassure you, and then they're behind the scenes going "oh crap," you've got a real disconnect.

America the Vulnerable: How Our Government is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism

So, why end up calling the book as I do? To say the United States has failed to protect the homeland. Clearly, a lot of people in this town will object to that: failure. And they will point to all the things they've done. And I come back in my professor hat and say anyone who takes a 100 question exam and only completed 40 of them and gets them all right knows that they're going to fail.

A measure of success is not that you tried, made and effort and so forth. It's against some standard. The standard is both about the threat and also about the low baseline from where we started. And the only way I can describe where we are today is that we have failed to come to come to grips and address these issues.

We've had progress in some areas and success in some areas, some has been made. Overall though, we've fallen increasingly into the trap where it's more rhetoric than reality, which creates this huge threat which is not what the terrorists will do to us, but what we'll do to ourselves after the next event and there will be a real crisis of public confidence.

And we'll see real outrage from the American people, that while they thought that their government was quietly working on these vulnerabilities, it turns out they were not. The core function of the government is to provide for our safety and well-being and it was not being done.

As a country, we're not one that has done well after catastrophic events respecting the core liberties. We have a government that is built around a deliberative process and we throw that out the window when we sense ourselves in danger. And so I say to my civil liberty friends, you're living on borrowed time.

But what I would argue, is that you're the most vested in protecting these liberties, have the conversation now. Make sure we draw the line in the right places, do it before the next event. After the next event, my fear is that the attacks will pick up in pace potentially, and we'll get ourselves in the kind of situation Israel finds itself in. Doing increasingly symbolic and self-destructive things to provide reassurance to its people that the government still can secure them, still can protect them. And while everybody knows that this game is ultimately self-defeating, that they can isolate themselves from the Palestinian people in their midst, and somehow that will make them more secure, the government's need to do something, to be seen, to say we're working overtime on the security issue.

That is a dynamic that we don't want to get into, we should not be squandering this borrowed time, we should be working full time on it, and it shouldn't be as partisan as it is.

Stephen Flynn is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was the lead author of the task force report "America: Still Unprepared, Still in Danger," and his articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs. He spent twenty years as a commissioned officerin the U.S. Coast Guard, served in the White House Military Office during the George H. W. Bush administration,and was director for Global Issues on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration.