P.J. Crowley
P.J. Crowley

When the Department of Homeland Security elevated the threat level over the holidays, it did more than add the color orange to the traditional holiday colors of red and green or blue. The banter between Connecticut Congressman Christopher Shays and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg over the wisdom of being in Times Square on New Year’s Eve illustrated the government’s mixed message of buying plastic sheeting and duct tape while proceeding with holiday travel and celebrations.

The heightened security level will remain at least through January but we have learned three things from this latest alert. The elevated terrorism threat is real. Conspicuous gaps remain in our ability to protect ourselves and find out what our adversaries are planning. In 2004 we must devote more money to homeland security if we are to overcome the challenges we face today.

In 2003 there was progress in disrupting potential attacks, arresting terrorists associated with al Qaeda and its offshoots. But al Qaeda still conducted significant attacks in Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey while the United States did little to repair its image in the Islamic world.

In fact, there are a number of reasons to believe that we are in graver danger entering 2004 than at any time since Sept. 11. First, al Qaeda’s leadership has not abandoned its goal of launching significant attacks against highly visible and symbolic targets in the United States. Second, as the videotape released Sunday by al Jazeera demonstrates, Osama bin Laden remains at large and continues to incite his followers. Release of such videos have coincided with attacks in the past. Third, we know that al Qaeda and others are still underwriting training camps in southeast Asia and, more ominously, have not stopped their search for chemical or biological weapon technology.

If recent moves by the Department of Homeland Security are any indication, the Bush Administration is now fully cognizant of the increased threat here at home. DHS had sufficient concern based on available intelligence to force cancellation of at least a dozen recent flights between the United States and Britain, France and Mexico. Other flights were subject to intensive scrutiny or shadowed by U.S. fighter aircraft. Despite chatter about specific international routes and suspicions about passengers on flight manifests, no arrests were made or detentions reported.

At the same time, we still lack the ability and institutions to effectively process and integrate available intelligence into a coherent threat picture here at home. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, in testimony earlier this year to the bipartisan 9-11 Commission, compared the situation to throwing more hay on the intelligence haystack while being unable to find more needless.

We are also still a long way from having an effective master terrorist watch list – as the inability to distinguish a child from a potential terrorist on an Air France manifest points out. Yesterday’s launch of the US-VISIT screening program, which involves fingerprinting all foreign visitors through major air and seaports, should help us determine more precisely who is attempting to enter the country.

As the war in Iraq continues, there are also ongoing manpower needs. For example, the National Guard is acquiring more homeland security responsibilities, particularly dealing with the consequences of future emergencies. Many Guardsmen have complementary civilian occupations as policemen, firemen or medical specialists in their home communities. But the reserves are increasingly committed to operations in Iraq. We are at risk of hollowing out our ability to respond in the United States even as they augment the active military force by filling critical needs in post-war stability operations.

Finally, there is the simple question of the bottom line: are we spending enough to properly counteract the threats. Consider:

  • The Department of Homeland Security’s budget for the current fiscal year is $31 billion, less than one tenth that of the Department of Defense.
  • The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that the last time DHS went to orange alert, cities and counties across the country had to spend another $70 million a week in response. As anyone who pays property taxes today can testify, this burden comes at a time when communities already under extreme budget pressure are laying off police or cutting back on hospital services, two critical homeland security components.
  • Private sector projections indicate that corporations, which own 85 percent of our nation’s critical infrastructure, today spend roughly $50 billion on security and have failed to increase security beyond pre-September 11 levels.

Even accepting the administration estimate in last year’s Homeland Security Strategy that, as a country, we are spending roughly $100 billion on homeland security, these funds are clearly insufficient. Terrorism remains a relatively low-cost business, with a handful of potential hijackers posing a threat that requires us to spend millions in response. It may be a matter of increasing budgets but it also is a matter of setting priorities that match the threat we face.

The administration has argued that we are devoting massive resources to the fight against terrorism in Iraq so we don’t have to at home. But the decision to raise the threat level to orange is a reminder that we continue to combat terrorism on multiple fronts. There is an ongoing and legitimate debate whether we have sufficient forces, resources and intelligence in Iraq today to succeed. Those same questions exist at home as well.

P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served at the Department of Defense and National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

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