The Department of Homeland Security's disappointing record.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Sept. 11 2007 7:20 AM

Homeland Insecurities

Six years after 9/11, we're still not thinking strategically.

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Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff

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.

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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.

U.S. officials also need to integrate a better understanding of its adversaries into the nation's defenses. Terrorists seek targets that will resonate with their constituents. We should ask what will play in Peshawar, Pakistan, not Peoria, Ill. Despite Thompson's fears, planning for a massive agro-terrorism event would be wasteful if al-Qaida or its affiliates have no intention of laying waste to the U.S. corn crop. The United States has spent billions on port security, yet, to our knowledge, no jihadist group has ever devised a serious attack plan for such a strike.

As these criticisms suggest, better security doesn't require spending more on defending even more potential targets. Clark Kent Ervin, the former inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, warns that terrorists could attack shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants, nightclubs, and similar soft targets and, in so doing, "terrorize the entire nation." Perhaps. But at the same time, Ervin notes that terrorism is "like water, it seeks, finds, and takes the path of least resistance." Ironically, such a statement also argues against protection.In theory, we could guard every restaurant, nightclub, gas station, or for that matter, any place where people congregate. But even if all public places were protected, the terrorists could simply shoot the guards and proceed with their attack. In practice, we can't protect everything, and we must remember that terrorists have their own priorities that lead them to concentrate on a limited set of targets.

It is tempting to say that too much preparation never hurts and that a steady drumbeat of fear is necessary to prepare for what is, in the end, a dangerous movement. After all, who wouldn't drive a car that was "too safe" or eat a diet that was "too healthy"? But excess preparation for homeland security can waste tens or hundreds of billions of dollars that could be better spent on fighting terrorists abroad, or, for that matter, on health care, auto safety, or a tax cut. Aside from the dollars wasted, many of the proposed defensive measures could impede trade, discourage tourism, and restrict civil liberties.

The very concept of homeland security is new for Americans, and the department was thrown together quickly and involved many already-dysfunctional bureaucracies. Even so, our nation's dialogue on homeland security is disappointing. Mistakes, misconceptions, and a lack of strategic thinking are tolerable in the immediate aftermath of an unprecedented terrorist attack like 9/11, but they are less forgivable six years later.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.