A Failure of Imagination
The biggest challenge in protecting America’s people, territory and infrastructure is the failure of imagination cited by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. Those of us involved in Homeland security should consider critically what this means, and what we can and must do to “break out” of the mindset that got us here.
Begin with introspection
The media commonly speak of “The Post 9/11 World,” while politicians and law enforcement officials invoke that “world” to justify whatever security measure du jour is being enacted. But we should keep in mind that this is an artificial construct, used alternatively as a political football by Congress and a battering ram by the Administration. The only real difference in post-9/11 America is that we now realize how vulnerable we are; the anger and animus against America have been in place for a very long time.
We need to learn and apply lessons here. For example, the notion that using civilian airliners as weapons was previously inconceivable has been thoroughly discredited; at least four documents in the public domain, one read aloud during the 9/11 Commission hearings, prove that. In fact, in the two years preceding the attacks, the North American Aerospace Defense Command held exercises simulating hijacked airlines used as weapons to cause mass civilian casualties, according to USA Today. Chillingly, one of the imagined targets was … the World Trade Center. Yet, remarkably, the bureaucracy has not yet resolved the issue of coordinating an efficient and effective response among FAA, DHS and NORAD to civil aviation threats.
What is lacking is the political will, moral courage and effective follow-through in dealing with identified vulnerabilities and risks. A courageous Administration, especially one that has just been re-elected, ought to openly admit its failings, and step up to the challenge we will surely face in the months and years ahead.
We must also avoid the tendency to generalize about the root cause of terrorism and to develop simplistic, force-based solutions as a result. The national debate about “Islamic fundamentalism” is a case in point. While the issue is real, our analysis is myopic. Notwithstanding a strong focus on “values” in the November presidential election, Americans generally tend to confine religious life to our homes, churches and synagogues. Islam, however, is a living, active social movement more than a religion, which is why Islam is difficult for westerners to deal with and place in context. Simplistic explanations such as “they hate us because of our freedom” ignore centuries of culture and history and defy logic and common sense. More to the point, they do nothing to bolster our ability to understand and combat/prevent terrorism.
Is our infrastructure targeted?
Especially for professionals involved in protecting transit and transportation infrastructure, it is a question that looms large. Even beyond the Sept. 11 attacks, most people are at least vaguely aware that Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman conspired to blow up the GW Bridge, Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, U.N. Headquarters and 26 Federal Plaza on July 4 of 1993. Other examples abound: An al-Qaeda operative was found in a U.S.-bound maritime container in an Italian port in October 2001, fitted out for a long sea voyage in comfort. U.S. intelligence has verified an al-Qaeda videotape showing terrorists training to blow up ports and bridges in the United States Captured al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaida told the FBI and CIA that a terror cell discussed an attack on the Brooklyn Bridge, and an al-Qaeda terrorist was arrested in Spain with videotapes of the bridge, as well as the Statue of Liberty, Sears Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, and New York airports. And the Madrid train bombings should drive home the point that public transit, too, is a visible and vulnerable target.
Yet a recent GAO report found that in fiscal 2003, TSA spent 81 percent of its “transportation” security R&D budget on aviation projects, and in fiscal ’04, TSA continued to spend most of its $88 million on aviation. Moreover, according to the National Research Council, neither TSA or DHS conduct any “basic” research for transportation security, and neither has fully developed a strategic plan with metrics or measurable objectives. How does one manage or evaluate what is not being measured?
Does the creation of the DHS mean that we’re safe?
The Sept. 11 attacks have not caused America to genuinely rethink our overall approach to security, only to fear the unknown in a way we had not before. The creation of DHS, while based on a sound idea, is no panacea in practice; it merely combines 22 existing agencies into a large and rather unwieldy organization that has no previously existing resources other than TSA. In one important way, too, DHS may in fact be detrimental because it draws an artificial line between “homeland” (domestic) and “national” (foreign) security, thus avoiding the fact that these are one and the same. Ironically, the existence of DHS more or less lets the Departments of Defense and State — and the FBI, which never joined DHS — “off the hook.”
At the same time, creating new agencies and/or “federalizing” existing ones, while throwing lots of money at these problems, is no guarantor of success. To wit: A 2004 GAO Study of post- 9/11 commercial passenger screening under the nascent TSA concluded that security is no better than 17 years ago; even the DOT’s own Inspector General concurred. And consider the implications of just one security gap: only one-quarter of all cargo on passenger aircraft is screened.
The nature of the threat: Revolutionary, not evolutionary
One aspect of this war is being wrestled with mainly in the Ivory Tower, but has implications down here on the ground: the nature of the threat. That is, the terrorist network in place and the tactics advanced by al-Qaeda are not intended to support some specific demand or set of demands such as the creation of a Palestinian state, or the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This war, which security expert Steve Flynn calls “cataclysmic terrorism,” is against our very existence and identity — people, infrastructure, economic power and society. Yet while the nature of terrorism has changed, the federal government, military and law enforcement agencies are still configured, trained and equipped to conceptualize and fight a conventional overseas enemy. This mindset must be tossed out, and with it the idea that the enemy is always a product of state sponsorship. So while we may have toppled Saddam Hussein, and may be able to isolate North Korea with the help of China and Japan, Osama bin Laden issues a videotape on the eve of an American presidential election that may have influenced opinions and actual voting.
Our own worst enemy?
America’s vulnerability is exacerbated by two conditions. First, the so-called “security community” doesn’t act any more logically than the “intelligence community.” To wit: the information used to justify the massive August 2004 security effort put in place at Citigroup, Prudential and two other facilities in the greater New York/New Jersey area was three to four years old. Consider the implications: If this information is that aged, weren’t these key buildings at risk, with no protection, for a long time? And now, based on obsolete information, are resources being placed here that would be better used elsewhere? Finally, how long will these facilities require enhanced physical security and stepped-up vigilance — forever?
Moreover, the Federal Government expects the states and local governments to protect their critical assets, but ignores the fact that many of these are really national assets directly tied to our macro economy. For example, could the relatively small city of Elizabeth, N.J., possibly pay for or protect its huge intermodal port, which is a vital link in the nation’s supply chain? This same issue pertains to all major ports across the United States.
The other condition that leaves the U.S. especially vulnerable is the fact that the American people are not genuinely engaged in this struggle, and take little or no responsibility for their own security. Americans simply wish to be told what to do, believing that they can merely follow a set of instructions to be made secure (remember the duct tape and plastic sheeting strategy of 2003?). And the private sector wants a business case and ROI to spend money on security, preferring to see the 9/11 attacks and destruction of the Twin Towers as a one-time aberration. In fact, the chief property management executive of a multi-billion dollar commercial real estate firm was recently quoted as saying “Buildings are owned by people who need to make a profit, and that is a big determinant in the (security) measures we take.”
There are lessons here to be learned and applied, and they will require a true partnership between government and private sector. They also demand a sea change in terms of imagination, coordination and cooperation across the federal government that is still far off in the distance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
DAVID W. GAIER is a writer and consultant on security, a former federal agent and U.S. Marine who served in Morocco and Lebanon. He studied Islam and terrorism in Egypt and Israel, and recently headed the security division of a Manhattan-based engineering and consulting firm.