The Magazine

Homeland Insecurity

By all means, let's have a vigorous debate about internal security.

Apr 22, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 31 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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SIX MONTHS after establishing the Office of Homeland Security, President Bush praised its head, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, for his service in a March 27 speech in South Carolina. Ridge's mission is a huge one: "to develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks." The president's praise is well deserved, but Ridge's historic work has only just begun, and questions remain about how best to do it. By all accounts, Ridge and his staff have worked incredibly hard. Their homeland security blueprint (available at www.whitehouse.gov) has several strengths. First, it unsparingly describes just how "vulnerable to terrorism of catastrophic proportions" we are, defining the threat as a "permanent condition" that is bound to grow, not shrink, in the years ahead. Second, it smartly identifies four intersecting paths to achieving greater homeland security: supporting first-responders, defending against biological terrorism, securing America's borders, and using the best information technologies.

Third, it wisely acknowledges that "securing the homeland from future terrorist attacks" will necessitate "major new programs and significant reforms by the Federal government," as well as "new or expanded efforts by states and local governments, private industry, non-governmental organizations, and citizens." Despite some public stumbles (the five-color alert system, for example) and a few embarrassments (like Immigration and Naturalization Service paper-pushers' welcoming dead terrorists to stay in America), Ridge's office and the rest of the administration should be credited with quickly translating parts of the homeland security blueprint into new laws and administrative actions, from more sky marshals to more Coast Guard cutters, from tougher anti-money-laundering statutes to stronger surveillance of electronic communications. The administration's 2003 budget almost doubles total homeland security spending to $37.7 billion, and would advance the entire spectrum of homeland security priorities--purchasing smallpox vaccines, doing more to ensure drinking water safety, increasing border patrols, and dozens of other needs. Still, are America's airports, seaports, nuclear facilities, dams, water and sewer systems, electric power plants, bridges, national monuments, government buildings, skyscrapers, big cities, small towns, sports arenas, and suburban shopping centers safer today than they were in the immediate aftermath of September 11, and, if so, are they safer at least in part thanks to federal initiatives as coordinated by Governor Ridge? I think so. For all we know or may ever know, Ridge's office may have greatly reduced our susceptibility to all manner of threats and attacks. Nevertheless, the still sorry state of airport security; continued communication failures between federal and local law enforcement; public health systems as ill-organized and under-funded today as they were on September 10; and far too many other homeland security dangers remain largely or completely unabated. Recently, the White House has been negotiating with Senate Democrats who want Ridge to testify. The administration has rejected their requests, citing Ridge's non-cabinet role as a West Wing presidential confidant. Meanwhile, Senators Joseph Lieberman and Arlen Specter have introduced legislation to establish a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security that would encompass the Coast Guard, Customs Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and parts of the INS and the FBI. Whatever the politics involved, it is prudent and in the public interest for Congress to debate whether Ridge's office is the best means in the long term of achieving a more secure homeland. Rather than stand on separation-of-powers ceremony, the administration should welcome Ridge's testifying in public on Capitol Hill, and use the occasion forthrightly to challenge congressional leaders in both parties on what exactly they would have the executive branch do on homeland security. In particular, the administration, which has indicated its willingness to consider replacing Ridge's office with a full-dress federal department, should openly debate the Lieberman-Specter bill and other plans for accomplishing this. If Ridge steps up, members of Congress had better be prepared. For, truth be told, the biggest barriers to an effective federal homeland security effort do not reside in the executive branch. Rather, Congress itself, acting over many decades, has created, overseen, and politically protected an absolutely hidebound, turf-conscious, government-by-proxy bureaucratic crazy-quilt.