Sign Up

America the Vulnerable

What is wrong with the current plan for U.S. homeland security?

April 12, 2005

What is wrong with the current plan for U.S. homeland security?

The 9/11 attacks were not an aberration. The same forces that helped to produce the horror that befell the nation on that day continue to gather strength.

Yet, Americans appear to be unwilling to do what must be done to make our society less of a target. Instead, we are sailing into a national security version of the Perfect Storm.

"Homeland security" has entered our national post-9/11 lexicon, but homeland insecurity remains the abiding reality. With the exception of airports, much of what is critical to our way of life remains unprotected.

While we receive a steady diet of somber warnings about potential terrorist attacks, the new federal outlays for homeland security in the two years after 9/11 command an investment equal to only 4% of the Pentagon's annual budget.

Outside of Washington, pink slips for police officers and firefighters are more common than new public investments in security.

With state and local budgets hemorrhaging red ink, mayors, county commissioners and governors are simply in no position to fill the security void the federal government has been keen to thrust upon them.

The private sector, for its part, has shown its preference for taking a minimalist approach to new security responsibilities. Yes, there have been a few private-sector leaders who have been bucking this trend.

By and large trade and industry associations have been hard at work trying to fend off new security requirements that might compel them to address vulnerabilities and thereby raise their bottom-line costs.

The list of our shortcomings is long. It ranges from water and food supplies, refineries, energy grids, pipelines, bridges, tunnels, trains, trucks, cargo containers, to the cyber backbone that underpins the information age in which we live. The measures we have been cobbling together to secure these critical areas are hardly suited to deter even amateur thieves, vandals and hackers — never mind determined terrorists.

Worse still, small improvements are often oversold as giant steps forward, lowering the guard of average citizens as they carry on their daily routine with an unwarranted sense of confidence.

Old habits die hard. The truth is America has been on a 100-year joyride. Throughout the 20th century we were able to treat national security as essentially an out-of-body experience.

When confronted by threats, we dealt with them on the turf of our allies or our adversaries. Al Qaeda exposed our Achilles' heel. Paradoxically, the United States has no rival when it comes to protecting its military, economic and cultural power around the world. And yet, we are practically defenseless at home.

Ironically, our overwhelming military capabilities make it attractive to target the non-military backbone of our power. We spend more on conventional military muscle than the next 30 countries combined.

Never in human history has such a disproportionately large amount of force been concentrated in the hands of one nation. In the face of this reality, our adversaries must become creative Davids to our Goliath.

Knowing that we face a future where our adversaries will have the motives, the weapons and the opportunities to strike at — and profoundly disrupt — our nation, we should be preparing for the worst. But we are not.

Moving from where we are to where we have to be will require a far more spirited and informed national conversation about the ends and means of homeland security than is currently underway.

For example, there is the escapist view that sidesteps homeland security altogether by advocating a go-to-the-source approach. This is the prevailing view held by the White House, at the Pentagon and by many others around Washington.

It is easy to understand its popularity. On its face, the logic of stopping terrorists abroad before they can strike us at home is hard to contest.

It also has the added benefit of allowing us to stick with our traditional approach to national security where threats are managed far from our shores — so we can go about our daily business unencumbered by security imperatives at home.

The state of affairs is all the more regrettable as the post 9/11 security imperative does not require making wholesale changes to our way of life that end up diminishing our cherished freedoms. Nor does it boil down to bankrolling gold-plated measures to protect against every possible contingency.

Instead, it is about addressing the economic costs and potential infringements on personal liberty in much the same way as we deal with those issues while managing more familiar dangers to modern life.

Our new security agenda should be about taking the appropriate steps to reduce the risk that our enemies can destroy and disrupt the things that we value.

That translates into the need to develop the right carrots and sticks to encourage across-the-board security measures.

This does not mean that the endgame is to turn every potential soft target into a fortress. More often, it involves improving the capacity to monitor systems and to develop contingencies for coping when something goes wrong.

This is because terrorists want to be successful when they carry out an attack. They have limited resources and they are interested in achieving spectacular results.

To this end, they will stake out their targets and, if they discover the risk of detection is reasonably high, or that the damage from a successful attack can be quickly contained, they likely will go back to the drawing board.

On the part of U.S. citizens — and for policymakers as well — this allows for something less than ironclad security. What is required is enough security to create a deterrent.

Adapted from America the Vulnerable. Copyright (c) 2004 by Stephen Flynn. All rights reserved. Used by permission.