Magazine article The New Yorker

HOMELAND INSECURITY; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

HOMELAND INSECURITY; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Article excerpt

It's not easy to remember, but we didn't always think of ourselves as a target-rich country. A rich country, sure, but terms such as "target-rich" and all that they imply hadn't penetrated everyday American awareness. Today, nearly everyone who studies the sources of potential terrorism, particularly the global jihadist movement, believes that more attacks are inevitable. Stephen Flynn, in his book "America the Vulnerable," likens this period to the Phony War--the eight months, beginning in September, 1939, after Hitler had invaded Poland, and Britain and France had declared war on Germany, when essentially nothing happened. The United States hasn't been attacked for more than three years now, an extraordinarily happy fact for which the Bush Administration is quick to take the credit. If that changes, the Department of Homeland Security seems well positioned to take the blame.

The government reorganization around the launch of the department, in 2002, was, as President Bush pointed out, the largest since 1947, when the National Security Act created the Department of Defense, the Air Force, and the Central Intelligence Agency. D.H.S. swallowed whole the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It subsumed and restructured the Customs Service, the Border Patrol, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Even the F.B.I. had to fight off its embrace. The newborn agency was gawky and formless, but one of its core missions, at least, was clear. D.H.S. would, the President said, "review intelligence and law-enforcement information from all agencies of government and produce a single daily picture of threats against our homeland." This mandate, it was hoped, would help prevent the kind of intelligence failures that allowed the September 11th attacks to succeed: two of the hijackers, for example, had been on a C.I.A. watch list that wasn't shared in time with other agencies. Indeed, the government kept a dozen separate lists of suspected terrorists. Such information clearly needed to be collated in a single command center.

That hasn't happened. The Administration, responsive to the claims of the big intelligence-collecting agencies--the Pentagon, the C.I.A., and the F.B.I.--quietly scaled back the intelligence function of D.H.S. to the point that fifteen qualified people who were asked to become its intelligence chief turned down the job. The department was unable even to attract a full team of analysts. Some observers called D.H.S. a Frankenstein; others saw a dinosaur--big body, small brain. Meanwhile, Tom Ridge, the department's secretary, proved no match for his Cabinet rivals, Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft. The Defense Department simply pursued its own homeland-security programs, while the Justice Department absconded with D.H.S.'s authority to investigate terrorist financing. Last spring, when Ashcroft announced a major new terror threat, he seemed to catch Ridge by surprise.

The department hasn't done much better in other areas. In November, 2001, President Bush signed a law requiring that all cargo on commercial flights be screened. That is a D.H.S. responsibility. Two years later, less than five per cent of cargo on passenger planes was being screened. Clark Ervin, a veteran of the first Bush's White House who was appointed the department's inspector general, found, in 2003, that he could sneak weapons and explosives past the screeners at fifteen airports. …

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