Six years after 9/11, we're still not thinking strategically.
Once again, the Department of Homeland Security is in the cross hairs. A just-released Government Accountability Office report bashed DHS for making limited progress on emergency-response capabilities and the management of human capital. DHS's progress was rated as "substantial" in only one of the 14 areas surveyed: maritime security. Although the GAO's criticisms are valid, it measures homeland security by bureaucratic-efficiency standards rather than by whether our country is safer from a terrorist attack. The report and other critiques of DHS miss the broader problem: The U.S. government has not taken a strategic approach toward homeland security.
The lack of a strategic approach has led to several real risks and vulnerabilities that go beyond the scope of the GAO report. Perhaps most important, DHS does not focus on ensuring the support of American Muslims. If terrorists can hide among a sympathetic local community, the job of police and intelligence officials is daunting. On the other hand, if locals oppose terrorism, the radicals must constantly be on the run. As the recent arrests in Germany suggest, homegrown terrorists, particularly those aided by skilled foreigners, can pose a grave danger. Fortunately, in contrast to Europe, American Muslims are well-integrated, well-educated, and prosperous, and many local law-enforcement officials are having more success reaching out to this community. Many breaks in much-trumpeted FBI successes against supposed jihadists at home, such as the case of the "Lackawanna Six," have come from local community members calling in tips.
Still, this goodwill should not be taken for granted. A 2005 survey of Muslim youth activists found that 70 percent felt that the American public had "significant hostility" toward Muslims. This is not paranoia on the part of young Muslims. Racist comments directed at Muslims have become more frequent since 9/11, as have acts of intimidation, such as the vandalism of mosques.
A second strategic problem is that no government agency focuses on perception management (though DHS technically has a mandate for part of this mission). In Israel, after a terror attack, special crews rapidly clean up the scene in order to signal that terrorism will not disrupt daily activity. In the United States, in contrast, government officials inadvertently send the opposite message. Then-Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson's 2004 declaration that "I cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do" is perhaps a particularly low point in public rhetoric, but in general our leaders seem to delight in emphasizing potential vulnerabilities, often showing an imagination far beyond that of actual terrorist groups. Terrorist use of a radiological "dirty bomb"—a real possibility—illustrates this problem. An attack and the ensuing radiation poisoning would likely kill only a few people, but many more casualties would result if frightened people were to race out of town because the government was unable to reassure them that they would be safe if they remained.
Domestic intelligence is another strategic challenge. The FBI is outside the Department of Homeland Security's purview, yet it remains perhaps the most important agency with regard to domestic security. Historically, the FBI's strength has been law enforcement, not intelligence. While the FBI has made many strides since 9/11, a report by the National Academy of Public Administration found that the bureau still has significant problems in how it recruits, hires, and develops its leaders. Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9/11 commission, reported Sunday that analysts are still second-class citizens in the bureau. Because the FBI does not regularly produce a domestic threat assessment, U.S. policy-makers still do not have a comprehensive view of the current threat (or lack thereof) and how it is evolving. The "first responders"—state and local officials—often lack access to intelligence and are out of the loop.
Daniel Byman is a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University and the research director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.
Photograph of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images.