Securing the Homeland

A Commentary by Lee H. Hamilton

Apr 11, 2005

Are we safer than we were on 9/11? It is a question worth revisiting from time to time, so that we can take stock of what has been done to secure the homeland, and where we remain vulnerable.

In the 9/11 Commission Report, we said that we are safer than on 9/11, but we are not safe. Many good things have been done. We have prevented further attacks on the homeland and disrupted al Qaeda's leadership abroad. Billions of dollars have been spent at the federal, state, and local level to protect our communities and secure critical infrastructure. Passenger airline security is tighter. The FBI has shifted its focus to fighting terrorism, and the wall separating law enforcement and intelligence has come down. A new border security system – US VISIT –better ensures that people entering the country are who they say they are. We have created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and reorganized our intelligence agencies.

Yet the work does not end with these sweeping reforms – the key is implementation. There have been strains at DHS, as twenty-two federal agencies have come together under one umbrella, and assumed responsibilities that sometimes overlap with the FBI or local law enforcement. And intelligence reform is just taking shape. The new Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, must have the authority he needs over budgets and personnel to manage our intelligence agencies, and force better sharing of information. His success will depend upon the President's continued engagement and support.

Unfortunately, congressional oversight in these areas is not sufficient. Oversight of homeland security is split among up to eighty different congressional subcommittees. Oversight of intelligence is not what it could be because the Intelligence Committees lack authority over intelligence budgets. Congress took some modest reforms in response to the 9/11 Commission recommendations, but we need more powerful Homeland Security and Intelligence Committees – with strong authorities and exclusive jurisdiction. Now that the executive branch has been reformed, we need strong congressional committees with real expertise, asking tough questions and providing clear direction.

Another area where Congress can do better is the appropriation of funds for homeland security. Homeland security funding looks more like a general revenue sharing program than a careful assessment of how to best secure America. Funds should be allocated on the basis of risk, not politics. Communities in the gravest danger – notably New York and Washington – should receive the greatest proportion of federal support.

We could also do a better job of allocating funds for transportation security. Anyone who has flown since September 11, 2001 knows that we have beefed up passenger airline security. But other modes of transport – for instance, trains, shipping containers, or ferries – are not receiving adequate attention. We spend about 90% of our transportation security funds on aviation. Instead of simply preparing for the last attack, we must set priorities about what targets need to be protected and what tactics anticipated.

Our emergency responders are more prepared for terrorist attacks than they were on 9/11 – equipment has been provided and drills are performed regularly. But more can be done. Most importantly, the police, fire and medical personnel who would be on the front lines need better communications systems. The radio spectrum should be available for public safety purposes, so that different emergency response personnel can easily communicate with one another in a chaotic situation. Our public health is in need of vast improvements to prepare for the consequences of a biological attack.

Finally, we need to continue getting better at talking to one another. Federal, state, and local law enforcement need to cooperate. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies need to share information. All of the various government agencies involved in counter-terrorism need to pool information and plan anti-terrorism operations together in the new National Counterterrorism Center. And the American people need to be continually educated and updated about the nature of the terrorist threat, and what they can and should do to be prepared.

The threat of terrorism will be with us for many years, and there is no such thing as perfect security. Much of our attention has recently been focused on important events abroad. But we must take the steps necessary to protect the homeland so that the war does not, once again, come to us.

Related Links

EMAIL UPDATES