The glacial pace of homeland defense.

The glacial pace of homeland defense.

The glacial pace of homeland defense.

Military analysis.
June 6 2003 4:55 PM

Homeland Insecurity

What are the feds doing about domestic terrorism? Not enough.

The CIA tells us al-Qaida is back in business, as clever as ever, and sure to wreak havoc on our shores again, possibly—at least such is its goal—with chemical weapons, toxins, or radiological "dirty bombs." What is the new Department of Homeland Security doing about the resurgent threat? A bit more than we were doing before, but only a bit.

The department is requesting $36.1 billion for next year, which looks at first glance like a $2.4 billion increase over this year's $33.7 billion. This boost would be slight enough under the circumstances, but in fact it's not a boost at all. Congress doled out an additional $3.9 billion to DHS earlier this year, putting its total 2003 budget at $37.6 billion. So the request for the coming fiscal year amounts to a $1.5 billion reduction. (This charge may be a bit unfair; there's bound to be an FY04 supplemental request later on. Still, the department's budget isn't exactly soaring.)

Of course, the pertinent matter is not how much they spend but what they buy. There are some positive notes on this score. Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge wants $200 million to create a database that would identify "critical infrastructure" (vulnerable nuclear, chemical, and industrial plants) and $300 million to help reduce the risks to those sites. He's persuaded 18 of the world's 20 largest ports, handling 70 percent of all cargo, to follow common procedures for inspections. (Of course, whether they'll follow those procedures is another matter.) He wants $829 million to create, from practically nothing, a division that would consolidate data and intelligence from dozens of federal agencies. He's asking for $567 million to develop biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear "countermeasures" (principally, detection sensors).

These are all good things to do, though it's legitimate to ask why the Bush administration is only now getting around to them on a serious level. (Did it really take the formation of a new superagency to recognize, and act on, the urgency?)

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Still, there are many other equally vital steps that aren't being taken at all or only at brow-crunching leisure. Here are a few:

Plugging cops into the database. It is well-known that, on Sept. 9, 2001, Ziad Jarrah—one of the terrorists who, two days later, would take over United Flight 93 before it crashed in Pennsylvania—was stopped on I-95 by a Maryland patrolman for going 90 mph in a 65-mph zone. The patrolman gave Jarrah a $270 ticket for speeding and let him drive on to his destiny. After the fact, many lamented that 9/11 might have been averted had the cop known Jarrah was on a "watch list." Jarrah could have been arrested and interrogated; maybe he would have squealed, or his collaborators might have nervously called their plan off.

The remarkable thing is that if the same thing happened tomorrow—nearly 21 months after 9/11—the Maryland cop, or any other state or local cop, would still have no way of knowing whether the person he stopped was on a federal list of suspected terrorists. Police do have access to a list of the feds' outstanding criminal warrants; though that's a different list, it does suggest the technical feasibility of plugging the cops into the terrorist watch list, as well.

One counterterrorist adviser says that a program is in the works to create such a link but that it's proceeding glacially.

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Cough up the money. A year ago, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly politely complained that he needed $260 million a year for overtime pay, to train more of his cops in counterterrorist techniques. Since this training would address a national threat, Kelly suggested that this should be a federal responsibility. Washington officials at the time agreed. Asked yesterday if they had handed over any of the money, an NYPD spokesman said, "No." He delicately added, "There's a good feeling within the organization that funds will be forthcoming, but they have not yet arrived." Meanwhile, he said, the city, heavily in debt, is spending an average $5 million a week to support a special squadron of counterterrorist officers.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that cities nationwide are spending $70 million a week on homeland defense. The Baltimore police force has to divert officers from street patrol to go inspect shipping cargo. When the FBI elevated the terrorist alert level to Code Orange on May Day, the D.C. police commissioner said he didn't have the money to do much about it. [Correction, June 13, 2003: The D.C. police department is headed by a police chief, not a commissioner.]

At the very least, the feds shouldn't raid the local rosters. Ridge recently hired Frank Libutti to develop an information-sharing network. On the one hand, Libutti is an excellent man for the job, a retired lieutenant general who used to run counterterrorist operations in the U.S. Marine Corps. On the other hand, just before taking the new job, he'd been working for Kelly as the NYPD's deputy commissioner for counterterrorism. The nation gains, but its highest-profile urban target pays the price. Couldn't Ridge have found somebody else and left Libutti on the scene? Is Libutti the only living American who could do the job? (That's a scary thought. Is he?)

What's in the box? Airport officials are screening more of our luggage—a good thing—but they still screen only 2 percent of the cargo packages carried in the baggage bins of commercial airliners. Congressional critics who have asked Ridge about this problem come away nervous that he seems not yet to have a plan for fixing it.

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Missile defense—for passenger planes. Last Nov. 28, terrorists fired two shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles at an El Al passenger plane taking off from Mombasa, Kenya. The missiles missed (they were old Soviet models, and their heat-seeking sensors had probably malfunctioned), but the next time they might home in on the target properly and blow it to bits. Thousands of these missiles are available around the world—many of them newer Soviet models, as well as American-made Stingers. If such an attack succeeds even once, not only would it kill hundreds of passengers, it would terrorize millions more who are so much as thinking about boarding a plane; the worldwide airline industry would be hurled into a depression, and vast sectors of the world economy that depend on air travel would be seriously mauled.

There is a defense against this threat. Already, U.S. military cargo aircraft are fitted with electronic flares, the hot emissions of which would distract a heat-seeking missile away from the plane. If built in mass quantity, these devices could be adapted to passenger airliners for about $1 million per plane (or roughly 1 percent of the plane's total cost). At this rate, the entire fleet of 5,000 U.S. commercial planes could be protected at a cost of $5 billion—the whole world's 10,000 planes for about $10 billion.

This is a lot of money, but consider: President Bush is requesting $9.1 billion for next year to research, develop, and accelerate the deployment of a system designed to shoot down ballistic missiles launched against the United States by North Korea, Iran, or some other rogue government or state-sponsored terrorist. This threat does not currently exist. The technology for this missile-defense system has not been adequately tested; its design is vague; its fruition lies decades away; and it may never be effective, especially against an attack of more than one missile.

Meanwhile, for a defense that relies on proven technology against the very real and current threat posed by anti-aircraft missiles, Bush is spending nothing.

[Correction, June 13, 2003: The D.C. police department is headed by a police chief, not a commissioner.]