Five Years Later, Are We Safe at Home?

Tomorrow President Bush will commemorate the Department of Homeland Security, but many security challenges remain, writes P.J. Crowley.

President Bush will commemorate the fifth birthday of the Department of Homeland Security tomorrow, an entity he created but has distanced himself from since its feeble response to Hurricane Katrina. While the president will give it high marks, in fact, DHS stands at the bureaucratic equivalent of early adolescence, which means it has taken both right and wrong steps, but is still struggling to decide what is important. It shows potential, but it needs more support if it is to achieve long-term success.

The president will cite the obvious, that there has not been an attack on the U.S. homeland since 9/11. What he will not say is that DHS’ task is harder because of what we have done in Iraq and not done in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is very much alive today and well enough in its safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal region to credibly contemplate some kind of attack around the upcoming U.S. election.

The president will suggest that lessons have been learned since Katrina, the most important being to change the subject. He will salute DHS for rounding up illegal immigrants, a legitimate challenge wrongly conflated with terrorism, without mentioning that immigration raids actually pull resources away from domestic counterterrorism. He will also skip past last week’s news last that DHS’ virtual fence along the southwest border, which was supposed to be deployed this year, does not work and will not for several years.

This is the latest indicator of the growing gap between what DHS is expected to do – secure our borders, protect critical infrastructure, share better intelligence, defend against weapons of mass destruction, and respond to disasters – and its actual capacity to do them. The reasons for the gap have to do with strategy, priority, ideology, and politics.

The president prefers offense to defense, claiming wrongly that we are fighting terrorists over there so we don’t have to confront them here. So, there is a surge of 30,000 troops in Iraq (the total bill: $150 billion this year), where insurgents have experimented with chlorine gas tanker trucks as weapons. But there is no surge at home, where fewer than 100 DHS employees (at $50 million this year) will oversee new security regulations affecting several thousand chemical facilities nationwide.

The Bush administration, which views federal support to cities and states as a form of welfare, has proposed cuts in homeland security grant programs for next year, despite the certainty that local budgets will shrink due to the current economic crisis. So, while we add 92,000 troops to the Army and Marine Corps, there are 5,000 fewer police on the streets of New York City, the city most likely to be targeted again.

The upcoming presidential transition will create an opportunity to reevaluate the dubiously-labeled “war on terror” and reassess who actually threatens us, what their capabilities are, what they are most likely to target, where government action can most significantly mitigate potential consequences, and what it will cost. What should the next administration be prepared to do?

First, the next president must recognize that homeland security, not Iraq, may be the first major national security challenge. A new leadership team must be put in place as rapidly as possible, focused on the U.S. homeland as the central front. It should reverse the tide of government secrecy, be more candid with the American people, and make more information publicly available to restore both credibility and accountability.

Second, we need to set clear national priorities, based on challenges we are most likely to face. This means reducing the availability of hazardous chemicals that could be used as a weapon, preparing for natural disasters fueled by global warming, and improving our ability to contain infectious disease. This will require increased manpower for DHS (government employees, not contractors); greater support for cities and states for planning, operating costs and infrastructure; and aggressive oversight of the private sector and market-based incentives so corporations will value corporate security as much as efficiency.

Finally, homeland security must be fully integrated within a revised national security strategy that employs all dimensions of national power, not just one. To the sole superpower of the world, terrorism must be put back in context as a serious challenge, but not an existential threat. Al Qaeda is not the Soviet Union. Our domestic defenses should be as robust as they were during the Cold War, but we will ultimately prevail not by militarily defeating Osama bin Laden and his followers, but by discrediting his ideology, practicing what we preach, and restoring our global standing.

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