Homeland What?


Homeland security is a lexically challenging phrase as well as a bureaucratically challenging responsibility. The word "homeland" rests uneasily on our ears--evoking the language of Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa--while the demonstration of it so far manifests a high level of homeland ineptitude. We do not dispute the fact that the nation faces unprecedented challenges. Nor should the difficulties of mounting a comprehensive response to the dangers of terrorism be underestimated. But even as we await a promised congressional inquiry into the intelligence failures of the CIA and FBI on September 11, the subsequent missed calls on anthrax in Washington seem to be of a piece with the bureaucratic infighting over bioterrorism that went on before September 11. Something is awry.

Tom Ridge, the head of the new homeland defense office, is a wonderfully serious and earnest presence before the TV cameras, but will he, any more than Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson or Attorney General John Ashcroft, succeed in building cooperation among the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the FBI, the Army, the CIA, and other federal agencies? Who would know that they all work for the U.S. government and the American people?

Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War (Simon & Schuster), published just before September 11, recounts the bureaucratic infighting over bioterrorism within the federal government and foreshadows the ineptitude we have just witnessed. The authors, Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad, report the repeated warnings from leading scientists, arms controllers, and State Department officials about the potential for a biological attack. Despite the keen interest of President Bill Clinton when in office, there was little cooperation among the several agencies given responsibility for coordinating a response to biological weapons of mass destruction. Even the personal enmity of Congressman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) toward Clinton spilled over into the effort, derailing the use of anthrax vaccine to protect the military. Among other items, the book also shows that a simulated biological attack with pneumonic plague in Denver, May 17-23, 2000, ended with the supposed disease raging out of control. The exercise showed that localities were woefully unprepared for a mass attack and that the federal government itself could do little to help treat or contain such an epidemic. Lack of coordination as well as years of underfunding public health agencies were apparent in Denver. We are not better prepared today.

Consider the postal workers in Washington. From what is now known, two postal workers died of inhalation anthrax on October 22 because the postmaster general was assured by the CDC that the envelope laced with anthrax and delivered to Senator Tom Daschle's office could not have contaminated the post offices that handled it. …

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