On the Front Lines of Homeland Security --

An Inside Look at the Coming Surveillance State

By Matthew Brzezinski. Bantam. 243 pp. $25

In the words of the recent 9/11 Commission Report, Americans may be safer today than they were on Sept. 11, but they are not safe. Investigative reporter Matthew Brzezinski set out to discover just how unsafe we are. His book is well researched, and his news is not encouraging.

With 95,000 miles of unprotected coastline, 14,000 small airports, 103 nuclear power plants, 15,000 chemical plants and 260,000 natural gas wells -- among other things -- the United States presents a rich target list for terrorists. More than 16 million cargo containers reach our shores each year, yet only 5 percent of them are inspected. Brzezinski asks, "If we can't even put a dent in the flow of thousands of tons of illicit drugs smuggled past customs, how can we hope to stop a fifty-pound suitcase filled with fissionable material from getting through?" Obviously, it is impossible to protect everything all the time. Success will depend on better intelligence for warning and more analysis and investment to create cost-effective layers of defense, no one of which will be perfect but which together can create important deterrents to terrorists. Such an approach requires good risk assessment and setting priorities. And that is where Brzezinski argues we are not doing well. He makes a convincing case. We spend four times as much to help first responders in Wyoming as in California, and twice as much on Alaska as on New York. Few people believe that represents the real distribution of risks.

The new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has 186,000 employees and a budget of more than $36 billion but lacks an adequate intelligence and analytic capability. Moreover, Brzezinski reports that he kept hearing about money woes and equipment shortages wherever he went, because in reality the budget "does not represent a dramatic increase over pre-9/11 outlays. It simply lumps together the existing budgets of the twenty-two federal agencies that comprised DHS." And he argues that DHS lacks adequate additional resources at home, in part because they were swallowed up by a war in Iraq that worsened rather than improved the problem of terrorism.

One of the growth areas in DHS has been the Transportation Security Agency, but as the 9/11 Commission concluded, the TSA has focused most of its attention on screening commercial airline passengers and not enough attention on other dimensions of cargo and transportation safety. Brzezinski quotes an Israeli security expert who joked that TSA stands for "thousands standing around" and noted the silliness of making "little old ladies take off their shoes for security" while only 2 per cent of cargo on passenger planes is being screened. "As priorities go," the Israeli commented, "shoring up security for airborne cargo is to me much more important. It's also a lot cheaper."

Brzezinski argues that DHS has also not done an adequate job of regulating security in the chemical industry, where the Environmental Protection Agency says plants could endanger up to a million lives with poisonous clouds of ammonia, chlorine or carbon disulfide that terrorists could release over densely populated areas. In November 2003, "60 Minutes" sent several camera crews to demonstrate how easy it was to trespass at plants that make some of the most hazardous materials. When Brzezinski asked the responsible DHS assistant secretary what was being done, he was told that "Regulating is not our role." Instead, DHS merely advised chemical plants "on what their vulnerabilities are." But as Brzezinski argues, without regulations that apply industry-wide, it is difficult for any one company to shoulder costly measures that might put it at a disadvantage with its competitors.

Seaborne cargo containers are another area of concern. A large ship can bring in 8,000 containers -- potential Trojan horses -- at a time. Before Sept. 11, only 2 percent of containers were screened. The number more than doubled to 5 percent in 2003, but that "means that 95 percent of containers enter the United States without any sort of physical inspection whatsoever." Vehicle and Cargo Inspection Systems (VACIS), oversized versions of the screening devices that are used at airports, are also available, but only 135 of them were in place in January 2004.

The color-coded alert system that was put in place with great fanfare in March 2002 quickly became "something of a national joke, fodder for late-night talk-show hosts." Some critics point out that not only have alerts run the danger of crying wolf, they also hand terrorists costless victories by terrorizing the population. "One never hears these sorts of all-encompassing alerts in Israel," Brzezinski writes. "Picture an Israeli TV announcement that a suicide bomber might target Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or Haifa in the next week or two. In Israel, warnings are either not issued at all or are accompanied by specific leads that can be acted on."

Better warning requires better intelligence, and Brzezinski wrestles with the trade-offs implicit in the additional domestic intelligence powers conveyed by the USA Patriot Act. He is aware of the dangers to privacy but also points out that one of the worst abuses of civil liberties, the secret imprisonment of hundreds of aliens (later criticized by the Justice Department's inspector general), was caused in part by the absence of good intelligence. He quotes a law professor who observed that the FBI intelligence before Sept. 11 "was so poor that they had to sweep broadly, using ethnic or religious criteria. Essentially, they were stabbing in the dark." His chapter on the mistreatment of Hady Hassan Omar, an Egyptian married to an American and seeking permanent residence in the United States, is a reminder of the larger issues at stake. Brzezinski concludes that "the urge to sacrifice the fundamental values that make America one of the freest societies will prove powerful in the years to come, for the question is not whether terrorists will strike again, but when." *

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard and author of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics."

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge introducing the color-coded terrorism warning system on March 12, 2002