America the Unprepared

Reviewed by Lee H. Hamilton
Sunday, May 14, 2006


Where America Is Vulnerable to Attack

By Clark Kent Ervin

Palgrave Macmillan. 260 pp. $24.95

What do you think about the war? Ask that question in Washington today, and you will start a discussion of Iraq, not of the fight against al-Qaeda. But close to five years after 9/11, the front that most affects the safety and security of the American people is the home front. If you poke around the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), talk to homeland security experts or query local and state officials, you will hear the same warning from all of them: We are still far too vulnerable.

Clark Kent Ervin has decided to shout his concerns from the mountaintops in Open Target . Ervin was present at the creation of DHS, serving as the vast new department's first inspector general. His book is part policy analysis, part memoir of the disillusioning experience of simply doing his job. "My pointing out the security gaps that I was finding did not make me popular in the Department of Homeland Security," he writes. "In fact, I quickly became a pariah."

Open Target details our vulnerabilities in several categories: borders, aviation, ports, mass transit, infrastructure, intelligence and even our capacity to respond after the fact to an attack. A common thread is the government's difficulty in setting and acting upon priorities -- what targets do you protect, what threats do you protect against, and what vulnerabilities do you tolerate? It has taken DHS years to begin answering those questions and prioritize what to protect in America's sprawling critical infrastructure. Within our transportation sector, for instance, while nearly $20 billion has been spent since 9/11 securing aviation, the Federal government has spent only about $250 million securing mass transit -- a far more common mode of transport for Americans than planes and, indeed, the very target struck by jihadists in London and Madrid.

That difficulty in focusing applies even to what nearly all experts, including Ervin, identify as the highest priority of all: preventing nuclear terrorism. We urgently need to step up efforts to secure loose nuclear weapons and material abroad, particularly in the former Soviet Union, as well as investing in detection technologies and aggressive inspection procedures at home. As Ervin points out, about 94 percent of the approximately 9 million cargo containers entering our ports each year are not inspected, and "any one of those containers could contain a weapon of mass destruction."

Ervin rightly points to the debacle of Hurricane Katrina as evidence of DHS's failure to improve our readiness to handle even a natural disaster. He singles out three recommendations from the 9/11 Commission (which I co-chaired) that remain undone: allocating homeland-defense monies on the basis of risk, not pork; setting aside a portion of the radio spectrum for police and firefighters to communicate; and establishing a unified command so someone is clearly in charge at the scene of a disaster. On all three counts, Katrina exposed what happens when hard choices are avoided: New Orleans did not get needed resources even though it was clearly at risk, emergency responders could not talk reliably to one another, and nobody was in charge. Because of these avoidable failures, lives were lost.

At times, Ervin displays the bitterness of a former employee scorned. At one meeting, his boss, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania, accuses Ervin of being less of a team player than the state inspector generals who had worked for Ridge back home. "I don't know how things worked in Pennsylvania," Ervin replies, "but this isn't Pennsylvania." He draws a sweeping conclusion from this confrontation: "This Secretary would be an adversary, not an ally," he writes. "Instead of taking the terrorists on, he would take me on." Ridge and Ervin clearly had a trying relationship, but Ervin's assessment surely overstates the matter.

Still, his basic analysis is persuasive -- from his sensible policy prescriptions to his infuriating description of how his teams passed through aviation screening with deadly weapons. Even allowing for growing pains, this vitally important cabinet department has had a troubling start. "By any measure, the department has proved to be less than the sum of its parts," Ervin writes. But fixes for that should come from more than an agency's inspector general; oversight is supposed to come from Congress. But congressional oversight of DHS remains divided among several committees, and the department is still not getting clear direction from Congress.

Of course, much has been done to secure the homeland since 9/11. In addition to creating DHS, we have broken down the artificial wall separating intelligence and law enforcement; made counterterrorism the FBI's top priority; restructured our intelligence community to make it nimbler and more adaptable; and spent tens of billions of dollars on important projects such as stepped-up security at nuclear plants and the US-VISIT program, which makes sure that people entering the country are who they say they are. But the fact that we have not been attacked at home since Sept. 11, 2001, should not give us comfort. We know that al-Qaeda takes years to plot and execute its operations, and we know that they and their affiliates try again when plots are foiled. Nor should we take comfort in a mere list of new homeland-defense policies. The key is not the list but how well the items on it are being implemented -- and what gaps in our defenses still need to be filled.

Early in his book, Ervin asks, "Are we as safe as we need to be?" With regret, he answers, "No," and he is correct. There is so much that urgently needs to be done and not much time to do it. The terrorists will not wait for us to get our homeland defenses in order. ยท

Lee H. Hamilton, the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was vice chair of the 9/11 Commission. An Indiana Democrat, he served for 34 years in the House of Representatives.

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