Protecting the American Homeland; Governor Ridge's Unfinished Work. (Homeland Security)

By O'Hanlon, Michael | Brookings Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Protecting the American Homeland; Governor Ridge's Unfinished Work. (Homeland Security)


O'Hanlon, Michael, Brookings Review


Almost half a year after creating the Office of Homeland Security, how well is the Bush administration doing in improving protection of the United States against terrorist attacks? No major assaults have been launched since September 11, giving a first impression that the effort is going well. But al Qaeda has historically spaced its most horrific terrorist actions by a year or two and may need longer this time given the crushing blow dealt it in Afghanistan over the fall and winter, so the absence of attacks since September 11 may not mean much. The fact is that despite impressive progress posted to date, the administration has yet to develop general plans much less request budget proposals and implement programs for a range of 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 can, however, greatly reduce the odds that the most deadly and costly types of terrorist attack will be carried out. Seen in that way, the goal of providing good homeland security is far from hopeless. But efforts to date are far from sufficient.

The Bush Plan

The Bush administration's budget plan for fiscal year 2003, released in February, includes $38 billion in proposed homeland security funds. It emphasizes five broad initiatives: airline and airport security, preparations for biological attack, border security, information technology, and consequence mitigation for any attack that takes place despite our best efforts to prevent it. The plan would build on accomplishments to date and make the country more secure. It is a good start.

But the plan has two shortcomings--perhaps reflecting the haste with which it was necessarily developed. First, it is directed too narrowly toward possible recurrences of attacks like those in 2001 and earlier--through airliners or anthrax or conventional weapons bombings--rather than toward developing a more comprehensive agenda. It rightly focuses on the "last war" but does not also focus on the possible next one. Second, it does not do enough to prevent terror attacks. The nation can and must do more to keep terrorists and dangerous materials out of the country, to preempt any terrorists who might get into the United States, and to keep them from acquiring dangerous materials once they are here.

This lack of attention to preemption and prevention here at home must be addressed. The administration is right to focus on some elements of border security and on improving the country's ability to respond to attacks. It is also right to try to improve protection for certain highly vulnerable key domestic sites such as airports. On these matters--consequence management, some elements of border security, and some aspects of domestic protection--the administration is on the right track, though it still has much work to do. But it needs to add a fourth basic tier of defense, prevention, to its current broad strategy for homeland security.

The administration itself recognizes that its budget plan is incomplete. Governor Tom Ridge and his Office of Homeland Security continue to work on a strategic plan for protecting the United States that is due out this summer. But given Ridge's unwillingness to testify before Congress and the lack of public debate about that strategic plan, it is impossible to know if the deficiencies are being rectified.

The Brookings Plan

A team of seven Brookings researchers has developed a broad framework for homeland security and a preliminary agenda for identifying and mitigating current U.S. vulnerabilities to terrorist attack. Perhaps two-thirds of the agenda overlaps considerably with the administration plan. But the remaining one-third differs in important ways. By our estimates, even if the entire $38 billion Bush homeland security budget were implemented, between $5 billion and $10 billion more would be needed for other measures that promise considerable security benefits at a modest cost. …

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