Editorial -- A Chilling New Report on the Department of Homeland Security's Primary Purpose

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) is an inspired choice for homeland security secretary. If Ms. Napolitano is confirmed, President-elect Barack Obama will get a skilled and highly regarded border-state governor and former state attorney general and U.S. attorney on the front lines of the immigration debate. That will be key to fulfilling the border security mandate of the department. But let's not forget what led to the formation of the agency: the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Terrorism prevention is and must remain priority No. 1.

Last week's horrifying attacks in Mumbai were yet another reminder of the murderous zeal of terrorists hellbent on unleashing fear and undermining governments. Bolstering this reminder is a report from the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism released yesterday that said "it is more likely than not" that a weapon of mass destruction will be used within five years somewhere in the world. And it issued this stern warning to U.S. leaders: "Our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing."

The group, led by former senators Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), noted progress, particularly in securing nuclear weapons and materials. But it said that bioterrorism is a "more likely threat" and urged the incoming administration to make prevention of a bioterrorist attack "a higher priority." The commission called on DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services to tighten oversight of the 400 U.S. research facilities that have 15,000 people handling deadly germs. It urged the next Congress and administration to implement an anthrax preparedness strategy and establish a system for efficient delivery of medicines to counter anthrax and other deadly agents. The confirmation process will give Ms. Napolitano the opportunity to discuss how DHS would deal with these and other gaps in security. And it will give her the occasion to take stock more generally of how prepared the nation is to prevent or respond to another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Ms. Napolitano must be ready to discuss what's working and what isn't. Does she think the Federal Emergency Management Agency should remain part of DHS? And how would Ms. Napolitano steer the department to meet the priorities laid out by Mr. Obama during the presidential campaign? One pledge he made was to take pork-barrel accounting out of homeland security funding and base the allocations on risk. While this is music to the ears of the mayors of Washington and New York City, it promises to strike a discordant note for many members of Congress.

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