Misplaced focus leaves us vulnerable

Almost six years after 9/11, we Americans find ourselves hip-deep in dollars spent on homeland security with very little to show for it. The responsibility for such malfeasance lies with those who led us to fixate on fighting terrorism globally while leaving our nation highly vulnerable to terrorists. We suggest a new path.

Establishing a Department of Homeland Security, however incomplete, has been no small task. More than 40 federal organizations have been administratively joined, countless pages of regulations and guidance have been issued, and billions in grants have been dispensed to state and local governments. That achievement, however, is far different from fully grasping the state of our security against terrorists and our readiness to repel and respond to attacks.


Can we adequately respond to terrorism by weapons of mass destruction in our major cities? Can we securely and confidently repel any attacks from terrorists against our ports, our energy grid, our transportation systems and our food supply? Can we adequately safeguard our shores from invaders who penetrate our immigration systems, spread hatred from within our communities and bring devastation to our homes and businesses?

For now, we must say "no" - and ponder why we find ourselves unready. Remarkably, the Department of Homeland Security has not invested money in genuine, high-risk urban priorities or tackled the most urgent issues regarding our vulnerabilities.


Reports from the Council on Foreign Relations in March and the Center for American Progress in April, for example, pointed toward rail traffic as one of the most perilous gaps in security infrastructure. The Washington-Boston corridor of Amtrak's passenger trains, and especially Penn Station in New York City, is one such soft target with terrible potential. So are the routes on which toxic chemicals are regularly shipped around the country through urban areas. Likewise, a Government Accountability Office report from January, while noting progress, still identified passenger rail service security as a work in progress. Surface transportation is among the worst gaps, including cargo through bridges and tunnels. But very high-risk targets also include cruise ships and hub airports.

Most important, we need to assess whether our 21 major urban areas can successfully deal with each of the specified 15 crisis scenarios that the Department of Homeland Security identified in its national policies and regulations. Unfortunately, we often can't determine even whether we are meeting those goals, much less how to fix the problems. We haven't completed vulnerability and mitigation assessments for every urban area or tested public-private sector response and recovery plans. The FBI is woefully underfunded for its work on terrorism and domestic threats; the ability of hospitals to "surge" in response to a major crisis has yet to be enhanced to a credible level; and public-private dialogue on water system, energy, telecommunications and transit safety are in their infancy.

We still lack a plan to coordinate crisis-management efforts among federal, state and local officials in the most serious WMD attack scenarios. We continually work on our readiness and sometimes our response, but seldom do we test our capacity to recover from attack and manage the aftermath. We need to not just concentrate on the issues associated with response and recovery, but also take more-effective steps to prevent terrorist inroads and thwart attacks.

The Bush administration is quick to take credit for the absence of major terrorism in the United States since 9/11. Many studies, however, use sophisticated techniques to point out that complex terrorist plots have a low likelihood of complete success. The Bush administration and our allies may have won a few skirmishes in homeland defense - when, for example, gangs that couldn't shoot straight tried to plan multiple attacks, or a shoe bomber couldn't light his fuse. Overall, though, we increase the probability of eventual devastating terrorism by leaving gaps in our homeland defense, as suggested by studies at think tanks in the United States, Canada and elsewhere.

We need a dedicated, special emergency and disaster management response corps of 3,000 trained and equipped personnel who can be deployed nationwide from any state in support of local police and firefighters, thereby relieving our military of the obligation to take on these tasks and further erode our military readiness.

We can and should be creative. For example, we could use shuttered military bases to stage and support this response corps, train local emergency specialists and enlist greater numbers of private sector leaders to coordinate commercial and industrial assets in dealing with terrorism and disaster. More could be done to secure our overseas gateways, airports, borders and ports to severely restrict terrorist radicals whose sole purpose is to destroy or inflict harm on our people, our commercial systems, our government and our livelihood.

We must invest in readiness, response and recovery in innovative ways. We must be willing to learn from and share technologies and approaches with our allies and neighbors to enhance security. We must take serious stock of our urban and infrastructure vulnerabilities, looking anew at shopping malls, stadiums, tunnels, bridges and areas of high-volume commerce to identify soft targets that may otherwise be overlooked. We also should strengthen seaport and airport security through special alien ID cards, merging states' motor vehicle administration criminal records with State Department visa databases, and much more. A new strategy is needed that is comprehensive, sensible and serious about the continuing threats we face.

Most of all, we need an understandable strategy that deeply involves the public and private sectors in sensible and measurable security enhancements while safeguarding precious constitutional liberties that may be endangered or breached by a zealous administration.


The era of terrorist danger will neither quickly pass nor be subdued through diplomacy. We will be engaged in a long-term struggle to prevent, interdict, defend and protect our citizens, cities, commerce and civil society.

In the end, we must be committed to a course of action that is not focused almost exclusively on a "war" on terrorism overseas but rather a strategy to defeat terrorists by ensuring real homeland security.

Robert McCreight is a retired U.S. State Department analyst. His e-mail is Daniel N. Nelson is a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. His e-mail is