As Congress sets its agenda for hearings and legislation relating to homeland security, we can anticipate some of the issues it will address. Expect discussion about whether al-Qaida is on the run or on the rebound, new legislative initiatives on how to deal with the continuing threat in cyberspace, beefing up security on the border, and the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata, to name just of few. These should be matters of great public interest, and they are. According to recent public opinion polls, 75 percent of Americans see terrorist attacks in the United States as a continuing threat, although they are close to evenly divided on whether the government can do more to stop them. But as legislators work their way through these matters, here are some fundamental issues of threat, risk, public expectation, and the protection of liberty and privacy that merit debate.
What is the terrorist threat? Getting the threat right is critical. But this is an election year, so threat assessments will inevitably get tangled up with political agendas. Some want to discredit the administration’s narrative of a tough and mostly successful counterterrorism campaign, while others want to claim a victory of sorts and declare an end to the war’s costly diversion of attention and resources. Both sides can muster evidence to support their positions. Looking back to 2001, there has been undeniable progress, but peace is not at hand. Relentless pursuit has decimated al-Qaida’s top leadership and degraded its operational capabilities—the threat of new 9/11s has been reduced. But the recent proliferation of groups across Africa and the Middle East that have taken up al-Qaida’s banner cautions that it would be premature to write al-Qaida’s epitaph. The dominant role played by al-Qaida’s fighters in Syria’s civil war and the recent takeover of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Iraq attest to the terrorist group’s resiliency.
Threat assessments must also take into account that it ain’t all al-Qaida. Beyond al-Qaida there are groups that subscribe to similarly hostile Salafist ideologies. Continuing chaos in Libya, Syria’s civil war, and escalating sectarian violence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region will undoubtedly create new terrorist adversaries. Intelligence officials worry that the nation’s understandable obsession with al-Qaida has created narrow corridors of inquiry that may cause it to miss new threats and combinations of threats.
Complicating the discussion is how the United States performs threat assessment itself. Homeland security is largely driven not by what terrorists have done in the past, but rather by what we fear they might become capable of in the future. The success of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 was attributed to failures of imagination by U.S. authorities—they failed to conceive of such a plot. That cannot be allowed to happen again. The government is pushed to prepare for every imaginable terrorist scenario. That gets costly.
Ensuring homeland security in an era of budget constraints. Thus far, the intelligence and homeland security budgets have come through congressional battles comparatively unscathed. That may not last. In the years immediately following 9/11, the United States hastily built a homeland security apparatus and gave it an ambitious assignment. But everything done then is probably not equally necessary now. It is time for review.
Unlike America’s past wars, the battle against terrorism will not allow demobilization. The terrorist threats the nation faces today are the new normal—homeland security will be an enduring task. Whatever is done must be sustainable. The government could simply impose across-the-board percentage cuts, or it could carry out a more discerning audit to identify where it can trim without significantly increasing risk.
Are there any homeland security programs that no longer make sense? Does the Department of Homeland Security provide increased effectiveness, economies of scale, or other added value, or does it just impose an additional layer of bureaucracy? These are tough questions, but they must be asked.