After 9/11, you'd think it would be obvious that we should work hard to secure our country against terrorist attacks. Some of this work has to be done overseas, but some of it involves taking steps here at home to make it more difficult for terrorist attacks against us to succeed. The Bush administration has argued that they have made America safer. But if you examine their record on homeland security, there are very serious problems.
Basically, what has happened is this: in the wake of 9/11, after initially opposing both steps, the Bush administration formed the Department of Homeland Security and federalized airport screening. Since 9/11 had demonstrated glaring holes in aviation security, the Congress passed measures requiring significant improvements in baggage and passenger screening. While there have been a few problems (pdf), like the fact that we still screen only 5% of air cargo, air transportation is now much safer than it was before 9/11.
However, nothing about al Qaeda's history suggests that having used airplanes to attack us once, they will stick to airplanes in the future. This being the case, we should have worked equally hard to protect ourselves in other vulnerable areas. But we haven't. As the 9/11 Commission report notes (p. 391), "Over 90% of the nation's 5.3 billion investment in the TSA goes to aviation -- to fight the last war." Other areas remain dangerously insecure, in a way that, after 9/11, I find it hard to understand. For some highlights, read on.
* Rail Security: Our railroads are vulnerable to terrorist attack. Yet it is only within the last year that the Transportation Safety Administration developed a plan to deal with rail security; actual steps to protect rail passengers are still in the experimental stage, and there are no plans to fully deploy them. During the last year, the TSA gave out a total of $115 million in grants for rail security; most estimates place the cost of securing our railroads in the billions of dollars. For the most part, the government has chosen to rely on voluntary safety measures undertaken by the railroad industry instead of defining standards and taking steps of its own. If the idea of relying on voluntary security measures to prevent terrorists from blowing up a shipment of toxic chemicals in the middle of a large city bothers you, too bad.
* Port Security: According to the CEO of the Port of Seattle, "In the United States we have 361 river ports and seaports. Every year we get 50,000 visits from 8,100 foreign ships. Every day 21,000 containers enter the United States. We can verify the contents of only about 4 to 6 percent of those containers. And it would require only one rogue container to bring commerce to its knees. ... We're spending a fraction of what we spend at airports, on a far more complex problem. We do not have a comprehensive plan to know what is in the containers that arrive every day. We need to verify that those boxes are documented, loaded securely and protected against tampering throughout their journey."
Did you catch that figure? Every study I have ever read on this subject suggests that ocean cargo containers are the most likely means by which terrorists might try to smuggle, say, the makings of a dirty bomb into the US. Reporters have successfully shipped depleted uranium into the US by ship. (An Undersecretary of Homeland Security claimed that "The system first passed the test because we did target this shipment" even though they failed to detect the uranium. Oops.) But we inspect only 4-6% of all cargo containers. That is not enough.
The Coast Guard estimates that it would take 7.3 billion dollars to secure the nation's ports. This is a lot of money, but the costs of a terrorist attack on our ports is much greater: "In a 2002 simulation of a terrorist attack involving cargo containers, every seaport in the United States was shut down, resulting in a simulated loss of $58 billion in revenue to the U. S. economy" (GAO report (pdf), pp. 5-6.) But so far, the Department of Homeland Security has given out only $563 million in grants for port security.
* Chemical Plant Security: According to the Wall Street Journal, "In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the White House and Congress enacted laws and regulations to tighten security at airports, nuclear-power plants and public water supplies. But three years later, chemical plants still aren't subject to federal security controls." Not only are there no laws and regulations governing security at chemical plants, according to a February GAO report (pdf), "the federal government has not comprehensively assessed the chemical industry’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks. As a result, federal, state, and local entities lack comprehensive information on the vulnerabilities the industry faces." That's right: three years after 9/11, we have no assessment of risks at chemical plants and no plan to deal with them. But take heart: DHS claims (pdf) that by December of this year, it will have come up with a plan that will "describe the roles and responsibilities of all sector stakeholders, including federal agencies", and will "describe the process to be used in prioritizing and assessing the vulnerability of chemical facilities within the chemical sector." So in a few months we will have described and defined responsibilities and described a process for prioritizing assessments of chemical plant vulnerabilities. There is no word on when we might expect anyone to actually do something to make us safer.
* Border Security: There are a lot of problems here. I'll just mention one: a GAO report (pdf), from last July looked into the process for revoking the visas of suspected terrorists who are already in this country. They checked a random sample of 35 cases, and found that in at least three of the 35 cases, it took the State Department over 6 months to revoke a visa after receiving a recommendation to do so; that in ten cases DHS either did not notify immigration officials that these individuals might be in the country or took several months to do so; and that it then took two months for immigration officials to initiate field investigations of them (p. 2). This means that once we've identified someone as a suspected terrorist, it might take us nearly a year to even start looking for him. This is unacceptable.
* First Responders: In March 2003, a study (pdf) by a Task Force for the Council for Foreign Relations led by Warren Rudman found the following:
"•On average,fire departments across the country have only enough radios to equip half the firefighters on a shift,and breathing apparatuses for only one-third.Only 10 percent of fire departments in the United States have the personnel and equipment to respond to a building collapse.
•Police departments in cities across the country do not have the protective gear to safely secure a site following an attack using weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
•Most states’ public health laboratories still lack basic equipment and expertise to respond adequately to a chemical or biological attack. For example, only Iowa and Georgia have the technology to test for cyanide,even though the deadly compound is readily found both naturally and commercially in 41 states. Seventy-five percent of state labs report being overwhelmed by too many testing requests.
•Most cities do not have the necessary equipment to determine what kind of hazardous materials emergency responders may be facing.
•According to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA),the average number of full-time paid police employees for jurisdictions of 250,000 to 499,999 residents today is 16 percent below the figure for 2001."
The report also found that first responders' emergency response capabilities are underfunded by $98.4 billion over the next 5 years, and that there is no systematic procedure for determining how those funds that are available should be distributed. It is for this reason that Wyoming gets over twice as much Homeland Security money per capita as New York, and over three times as much per capita as California.
Now: there are a lot of other problems (biodefense, the Justice Department's laughable record in prosecuting alleged terrorists), but I imagine you are tired of all these details by now. (I am certainly tired of reading reports.) But the bottom line is this: after 9/11 we could have made a serious effort to improve homeland security. We did improve the security of aviation, but we have barely begun to address other critical threats. It would have cost money to do this, but we could have paid for it by not invading Iraq, and/or by rolling back the tax cuts for those earning over $200,000 a year. Either step would have generated more than enough money to pay for all the improvements mentioned above. Spending the money on homeland security improvements would have done much more to stimulate the economy than tax cuts for the rich. Much more importantly, however, it would have reduced the odds that the next terrorist attack will succeed. But George W. Bush has other priorities. And that's one more reason why I will not vote to reelect him.