U.S. homeland still insecure

by Peter Orszag

Half a year after the creation of the Office of Homeland Security, how well is the Bush administration doing in its efforts to improve protection of the United States against terrorist attacks? No major attacks have occurred since Sept. 11, giving a first impression that the effort is going well. But al-Qaeda has historically spaced its major terrorist actions by one to two years, and may need more time in this case given the military action in Afghanistan, so the absence of major attacks in the last seven months has only limited significance. In fact, while the administration has made impressive progress to date, it has not yet developed general plans, much less requested budget proposals and implemented programs, for a range of other threats. As a result, the country is still rather vulnerable.

To be sure, a large, free, and open country cannot make itself invulnerable to terrorism. An effective homeland security strategy, however, can make the most deadly and costly types of terrorist attack less likely to succeed. Measured against these metrics, the goal of providing good homeland security is far from hopeless, but efforts to date are far from sufficient.

The Bush administration’s budget plan for fiscal year 2003, proposed in February 2002, includes $38 billion in proposed homeland security spending, roughly twice the level of the pre-9/11 world. The proposed budget would build on accomplishments to date and make the country more secure. Its major emphases would be placed on airline and airport security, preparations against biological attack, better monitoring and regulation of traffic across the country’s borders, using information technology more effectively, and dealing with the consequences of any attacks that occur despite our best efforts to prevent them.

The proposed homeland security budget, however, has two significant shortcomings. First, it focuses more on preventing recurrences of attacks like those in 2001 and previous terrorist actions — through airliners or anthrax or conventional weapons bombings — than on a more comprehensive agenda. It thus focuses too exclusively on the “last war” rather than the possible next one.

Second, the Bush homeland security budget does not do enough to pre-empt terror attacks before they are even attempted; it pays insufficient attention to prevention. In particular, its plans for improving the intelligence sharing among various law enforcement agencies are woefully inadequate so far. Preventing terrorist attacks, by pre-emptively pursuing terrorists here in the U.S. and by tightly guarding materials they might use in any attacks, should be a higher priority than the Bush administration has made it to date.

The administration itself recognizes that its current plan is incomplete. Ridge and his Office of Homeland Security continue to work on a strategic plan for protecting the U.S. that would presumably include a number of initiatives not yet funded in the $38 billion request for homeland security in 2003 that the administration recently sent to Congress. But given Ridge’s unwillingness to testify before Congress, and the absence of that strategic plan from the public debate, it is impossible to know if the deficiencies are being rectified.

Even if the entire $38 billion Bush homeland security budget were implemented, between $5 billion and $10 billion in additional annual federal spending would be needed to adopt additional measures that promise considerable security benefits for a modest cost. Specifically, our recommendations feature the following proposals:

* substantial expansions in domestic law enforcement agencies, well beyond those proposed by the Bush administration, in terms of personnel and information technology. This would fill clear gaps in agencies such as the Border Patrol and FBI, while providing real-time data links among federal agencies and also between federal, state, and local law enforcement officials.

* various measures, including filters and protected air intake systems, for reducing the odds that biological agents could circulate through the air intake systems of major buildings and other large facilities, ,

* additional measures for protecting buildings against conventional explosives and fires, including use of shatterproof glass in lower floor windows,

* improved safeguards, including automatic braking mechanisms, on trucks carrying hazardous materials, and background checks on their drivers, and

* major improvements and expansions in the coast guard and customs services, well beyond those already suggested by the Bush administration. Today, only 5 to 10 percent of cargo entering the country is monitored in any way. Our proposals would drastically increase that figure, largely by aggressively implementing a strategy for inspecting cargo as it is loaded in overseas ports. Shipping companies and overseas ports that cooperated would get their goods into the country quickly; others would have to sit in inspection queues here in the U.S., or even be denied entry.

A number of these programs would be funded by the federal government, though the users of particular services and owners of private property requiring protection would generally be expected to pay their own costs.

This agenda is challenging, but it is hardly excessive. Even once fully adopted, homeland security programs would constitute only 0.5 percent of gross domestic product and about one-seventh of total defense spending.

The Bush administration has done a good job to date of improving the country’s protections against terrorist action here at home. But its efforts have not been sufficient, and they have not been adequately subjected to congressional and public oversight. It is time to broaden the debate and get on with the job. We may not have much time to lose.