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Guide At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World

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Although management failures have produced security gaps in fast-moving lines, followed by—especially this spring and summer—long wait times resulting from efforts to plug those gaps, the screening process is undeniably tighter than it was on the morning of September In the s, hundreds of federal air marshals—undercover cops in the air—were deployed on American planes to thwart hijackings to Cuba. By , the number of marshals had been reduced to 33—negligible coverage for the more than 20, flights leaving airports in America every day. The actual number is classified.

When Kevin McCabe, the chief inspector of the U. Customs contraband team at the giant Elizabeth, New Jersey, freight port, looked across the water at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan and saw the second plane hit, he knew his country was under assault. He directed his 70 inspectors to move every container that had arrived from the Middle East or North Africa—about of them—to a far-off section of the pier. The X-rays and searches, however, had always been geared to looking for smuggled drugs. The inspectors were great at finding cocaine hidden in limes from Ecuador.

Containers that register high on a threat matrix based on information sent in advance about the content and its shippers are singled out for additional screening; many containers are screened in foreign ports by U. Customs inspectors before they set sail. The system is far from airtight. A week after the attacks, America was again caught flat-footed, when envelopes containing deadly anthrax were sent to several media outlets and two U.

Senate offices, ultimately killing five people and hospitalizing When Tom Ridge, the Pennsylvania governor, whom President Bush had just recruited to become the White House homeland-security adviser, convened his first meeting about anthrax in the Roosevelt Room, across from the Oval Office, he was stunned by the cluelessness of those assembled at the table. There was no playbook. No list of medical experts to call. No emergency supply of antidotes and no plan to produce one.

Today, a collection of federal agencies—so many that, if anything, there is bureaucratic overlap—has playbooks for a variety of biological and chemical outbreaks, and billions have been spent to stockpile antidotes. The TSA was legislated and launched within months, led by a fresh group of recruits from the private sector. Tom Ridge was emblematic of the September 12 mind-set.


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But he took the job heading homeland-security efforts within hours, on September 19, not knowing where he would live or what his salary would be. Of course, that has changed. The initial September 12 spirit was like a rush of adrenaline. Much of what Americans in and out of government did was extraordinary; in hours worked, helping hands extended, immediate problems solved, they stretched beyond what they might have expected of themselves. Then the rush subsided.

When the headlines—the adrenaline that fuels Washington—died down, Beltway norms returned. Contractors, consultants, academics, and bureaucrats swarmed in to co-opt the new big thing, while the politicians retreated to their respective corners. In April , working as a reporter, I watched as a spirited band of new recruits got the TSA up and running at its first airport, in Baltimore. They timed passenger throughput, and high-fived each other when it stayed below four minutes per person.


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More high fives. When I visited TSA headquarters five years later to discuss a business I was starting that would expedite prescreened passengers through the security lines, administrators and other back-office employees—who by now numbered about 5,, in addition to the 44, screeners working in airports—had their own building, near the Pentagon. One groused to the other that his parking-space assignment was unfair.

Billions more would go to cities and towns savvy enough to slap a homeland-security label on grant proposals. Across the country, colleges and universities went after research grants aimed at everything from how to make office windows blast-proof to how to secure international shipping channels. Academic institutions began offering degrees in homeland security.

I counted such programs when I scanned the web a few weeks ago. The question is how much of that was wasted and how much should have been used on other programs to address other security gaps. Here are excerpts from an eye-opening report highlighting one of those continuing gaps, which I bet you never heard about, even though it was issued less than a year ago:. The report was written by an all-star bipartisan panel consisting of, among others, Tom Ridge, the founding secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; Joe Lieberman, the former chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee; Donna Shalala, who served as the secretary of health and human services under Bill Clinton; and Tom Daschle, the Democratic former Senate majority leader.

The Obama administration had the same nonreaction. We have to make choices every day about risk and priorities. What a difference 15 years makes. Policy makers fight the war that made those headlines, not the war that might come next. Broad, and Stephen Engelberg—published an article in The Times adapted from their book, Germs , a vivid account of the danger of bioterrorism that would be published the following month.

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Immediately after the anthrax attacks in September , Libby got Cheney and the rest of the Bush administration behind an urgent biodefense drive. Within months, during which there were several false alarms signaling apparent follow-on germ attacks including one that officials feared had penetrated the White House , what would become a program costing hundreds of millions was launched to buy dozens of BioWatch detectors. These were deployed at pedestrian gathering places in 20 major cities to collect air samples.

By , 36 metropolitan areas were covered. The instinct to do something, anything, about the threat was understandable. But collecting and analyzing BioWatch air samples could take up to 36 hours. By then, of course, an aerosolized attack could have infected thousands of victims who would have long since dispersed. Besides, samples of only six possible pathogens were even theoretically detectable, and that was only if the offending germs were sprayed close to the detectors.

The sensors deployed indoors at places like Grand Central Terminal seemingly had a better chance of working than those scattered outside along busy streets. But no one knew for sure whether any of them worked. A new BioWatch program was launched in to develop systems that could cut down the analysis process to six hours and broaden the range of threats that could be detected.

Meantime, the original sensors are still deployed. Whether they work is still not known; many experts doubt they do unless the aerosol is released in intimate proximity. Come on! This past February, when a House homeland-security subcommittee held a hearing on BioWatch, senior DHS officials assured their inquisitors that they were working on the problem.

The program was finally euthanized in , after which an Israeli firm was brought in to provide a system that apparently works. Worse, the ID-card readers have never worked and are not being used, making the high-tech credentials no more secure than a library card. Clarke, the former White House anti-terror chief, has a weekend house in Rappahannock County, Virginia population 7, The largesse has hardly been limited to souped-up emergency vehicles.

Everything in the grant applications was linked to terror, an exercise in which the grant writers suffered no failures of imagination. Today, the grants continue, though at a reduced rate, and they are mostly restricted to high-risk metropolitan areas. In New York City, federal grants enabled newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, to set up a 1,person Counterterrorism Bureau that includes specially armed quick-response units and intelligence officers assigned overseas. Thousands could have been drowned. More federal money went to reinforcing subway tunnels, installing cameras to detect intruders, and assigning undercover officers to ride the trains.

On the Upper West Side, an exposed bit of a pipeline running natural gas up the East Coast was encased in a protective shed, as was a vulnerable water main in the Bronx that could have flooded much of that borough. Washington also paid for cops to be posted at key targets. The federal government made similar investments in other cities and other high-profile venues across the country. Joint Terrorism Task Forces—which had previously consisted of small groups of FBI agents, representatives of other federal law-enforcement agencies, and a few local police officers—were beefed up with funding from Washington.

In , there were 35 Joint Terrorism Task Forces around the country; today, there are The federal government has also funded broader groups of law-enforcement and emergency-response agencies, called fusion centers. The feds have sponsored drills and other exercises to help state and local police departments, and other first responders, rehearse how they would work together in an emergency.

The same mixed verdict applies to the agency created to dole out that money and manage the programs. The details of the reorganization are still being debated. Should the FBI have been left out? Should the Secret Service have been included? But combining agencies such as Border Patrol, Customs, the new TSA, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency into one department responsible for putting the people and systems in place to defend against or recover from an attack made sense, as did enabling the still-separate FBI to gather intelligence in order to stop the people planning attacks or track them down after an attack occurred.

Nonetheless, the result, especially at first, was management disarray and ineffectiveness that could fill a textbook on bureaucratic dysfunction. Ridge was preoccupied during his tenure with organizing the new agency and launching urgent programs, like the BioWatch detectors and the posting of U. Customs inspectors overseas. His successor, Michael Chertoff, a former federal appeals judge and head of the U. Napolitano focused, she told me, on rebuilding FEMA following the Katrina disaster, border security, and the unsuccessful effort to pass a broad immigration-reform bill.

A former general counsel for the Defense Department, Johnson seems to have become a smart, tough manager. But the challenges of fusing so many long-standing independent bureaucracies remain, even 14 years after they were first thrown together. An approachable boss who has made a habit of mingling with his troops wherever he goes, Johnson seems well suited to the challenge.

At a town-hall meeting for DHS employees in New York, I watched him connect with those who asked questions, inquiring about their families and then demonstrating that he was immersed in the issues they cared about. Although the GAO recently reported that DHS has made significant progress in tightening management, Johnson still has work to do, starting with customer service. In June, a friend tried to call Customs and Border Protection with a complaint about a Global Entry card that he should have been able to use when entering the United States after an international flight. No one ever picked up the phone.

Last winter, a House subcommittee hearing about a DHS human-resources IT program produced another installment of a C- SPAN drama that has played out in dozens of episodes since the agency was put together: indignant inquisitors lacerating their witness. But the longest-running failure of management when it comes to homeland security—a failure that is deliberate, self-centered, and easy to fix—has to do with Congress itself.

When Congress voted in to consolidate 22 federal agencies into a unified DHS, each of those agencies and their dozens of subunits was overseen by different congressional committees and subcommittees. That never happened. Thus, four House and Senate transportation subcommittees oversee the TSA and the Coast Guard, but subcommittees of the House and Senate homeland-security committees oversee them too. In all, congressional committees or subcommittees assert some kind of jurisdiction over DHS. Those committees and subcommittees held hearings in and alone, according to a tally compiled by DHS.

Each hearing required DHS secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, or agency heads to sit for hours, listening to the members read ponderous opening speeches and then responding to questions. It adds up to one or more senior DHS officials sitting through these hearings about three times a week. I could find no member of Congress or congressional staffer willing to defend the current setup. Rather, unlike any other issue when it comes to terrorism—where urgency and indignation at even the slightest failing is the order of the day on Capitol Hill—everyone I talked with seemed to accept their own bipartisan failure to act as an immovable fact of life.

There are few noticeable victories—but multiple opportunities for failure, embarrassment, and ridicule.

Different Not Inferior

While the FBI, he explains, does high-profile detective work, DHS mostly screens people and things at airports and borders, reviews claims for cleanup grants after disasters, and does the unsung work of advising the private sector on how to protect its infrastructure. Although DHS mostly makes the news when it fails, it also gets attention when it becomes the butt of comedy monologues about mindless bureaucracy. Early on, the jokes had to do with color codes and duct tape. Both illustrate the no-win proposition of having a government agency try to deal with the changing impulses of the September 12 era.

The much-ridiculed color codes—public pronouncements that the country was at a green, blue, yellow, orange, or red state of alert—came about because Ridge insisted that federal officials should share threat information with the local police agencies who would be on the front lines.

But the information the locals got was leaked, spurring outcries that the public deserved to know at least something about potential threats. The resulting color scheme, announced in , was derided as so vague as to be meaningless. But it was seen as better than the alternatives of saying nothing or telling everyone, including the bad guys, specifically what the government knew. Duct tape was about a more important, if equally ridiculed, initiative. This was, and remains, a prudent security precaution. But Ridge and his team were almost immediately lampooned, perhaps because joking about a possible disaster relieved nerves.

In June , news leaked that testers from the DHS Office of the Inspector General had been able to smuggle simulated weapons or explosives through checkpoints 67 out of 70 times at airports across the U. Johnson was so incensed that he removed the acting TSA administrator and replaced him with Peter Neffenger, a highly regarded Coast Guard vice admiral.

Neffenger said he is also determined to expand the PreCheck program. Launched in , PreCheck provides expedited TSA clearance for the 3 million people so far who have agreed to be prescreened. Neffenger is determined to improve its marketing, open more-convenient enrollment centers, and give government officials who already have a security clearance automatic enrollment. But it will be popular only until a PreCheck member does something bad—which is bound to happen today or 10 years from today, because no security process is perfect. Making homeland-security decisions based on logical weighing of risks makes sense and avoids public frustration and ridicule—until something bad happens.

As those who have flown lately know, the problem of slow airport-security lines was exacerbated this spring and summer by record air-travel volume and by the fact that three years ago, the TSA began to trim its airport staff. Hiring and training to get back to staffing levels sufficient to cut the current wait times while maintaining security will take at least until the beginning of next year.

However, once the TSA was operating, people resumed flying instead of driving. In other words, the reassurance provided by the establishment of the TSA arguably saved more than lives a month. Of course, the TSA gets no credit for those lives a month.

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Turning that theoretical math into congratulatory high fives is a stretch. But other, more direct measures of homeland-security success are no easier to calculate. I do know that last year TSA seized in carry-on luggage 2, guns—83 percent of which were loaded. Air marshals are supposed to prevent terrorist hijackings. There have been no hijackings.

Why complain about that? How do we know how many hijackers were deterred by the well-publicized air-marshal buildup? And what about the flights that air marshals were on? This is what makes any cost-benefit analysis so challenging. Yet training thousands of men and some women for armed combat in the sky and then having them travel mostly in first class, to be near the cockpit on endless flights every day does seem to be overkill, especially when all cockpits have been fortified to prevent the kind of forced entry that precipitated the buildup of the marshal force.

Yet only in the past four years have any members of Congress even mildly urged cuts in its budget. At least in the case of the air marshals, there is a tactical argument for cutting the program: The fortifying of cockpit doors and the arming of thousands of pilots may have eliminated the threat that the marshal program was supposed to address. But no one in Washington seems willing to rank threats in terms of the relative risk they pose. Saying that something is less of a threat than something else is a political third rail. Everything is always a priority.

Just go do your thing. Any moron could make the pressure-cooker bomb those idiots used in Boston. The San Bernardino couple were idiots. You can still have an impact. You can be a hero. ISIL is just the opposite. Carlos T. Divided into 17 squads, the office has jurisdiction not only over New York, but also over cases emanating out of Canada, western Europe, and Africa.

One squad chases down any and all tips from the public and refers those that seem credible to more-specialized units. Others hunt terrorists on the internet. You look at the patients in the emergency room and decide what needs your immediate attention or what needs some kind of longer-term initiative. We know ISIL is trying to develop chemical weapons. And you have to worry about that, too. Balancing those threats is a challenge today. Comey was a chief federal prosecutor in New York and then the deputy attorney general under George W. Bush until he left for the private sector in All in all, I think we really are a well-oiled anti-terror machine.

However, Comey acknowledged that even in the brief time since he took over the bureau in , the rise of lone wolves has changed the nature of the intelligence his agents have to try to collect. The bureau has tools to sift through social media to try to connect the dots—but the volume of the traffic and possible connections between all those dots make this a hit-or-miss proposition where only hindsight provides clarity. No amount of resources, let alone compromises in constitutional rights, would make it possible for the bureau to detain or even surveil all these people.

We have to keep trying. The FBI had interrogated Mateen twice in the past, but never had cause to arrest him, or to keep him under constant surveillance. In the aftermath of attacks like those in Orlando and San Bernardino, some critics charge that Comey and his people were not aggressive enough in monitoring or arresting the perpetrators of those attacks before they occurred.

Others argue that the FBI has overstepped constitutional boundaries in its drive to find out what people might be planning, often by entrapping suspected terrorists into actually creating attack plans they might otherwise never have thought of. Bergen cites several cases in which defendants have argued that while they might have expressed hostile thoughts to someone who ended up informing on them, the FBI stepped in and, through informants or undercover agents, created an attack plan for them, encouraged them to try to carry it out—and then arrested them when they proceeded with the attempted attack.

And someone tells us about it. What should we do? Or was he drunk? In fact, an informant was assigned to sound out Mateen two years before the Orlando attack, after co-workers reported that he had allegedly made inflammatory comments about terrorists. But Mateen did not seem to be a threat. The FBI has charged approximately 90 individuals with plotting a terrorist attack since So far, no entrapment defense has been successful. George Selim, the director of the Office for Community Partnerships, works with a staff of about 30—as well as with Jeh Johnson personally—to encourage leaders in Muslim communities to look for signs of trouble more subtle and further upstream than abandoned luggage, such as teenagers in schools or at mosques who appear disaffected.

Johnson, who has thrown himself into the CVE effort, says that when he goes into Muslim communities, he tells people that he understands profiling. In fact, most government agencies initially defied a presidential directive and refused to even install the much-derided Einstein. She has worked to professionalize the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, which, although it has produced yet another mind-numbing acronym NCCIC , has the potential to be effective, according to one Silicon Valley star programmer who has advised the Obama White House on cyberissues.

Some sit at screens looking for trouble as they monitor the innards of dozens of federal agencies except the Defense Department, which has its own cybersecurity apparatus. For example, a dramatic upsurge in traffic at the IRS during tax time, in mid-April, would mean nothing, but the same spike on Commerce Department servers could spell trouble.

Others monitor web traffic around the world, looking for similar regional or countrywide anomalies that could indicate attempted sabotage. I asked Schneck whether cyberattacks on the government would be impossible or nearly impossible anytime soon. The voluntary information-sharing process has been made easier by recent legislation that shields private companies from liability for sharing the information.

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What happens when they figure out how to use it to break into a chemical plant, or a blood bank and change the blood types? We know they are trying. Last fall Ted Koppel, the former ABC News correspondent and Nightline anchor, published Lights Out , a short, alarming book that makes the case that the United States is unprepared for a cyberattack on its electric grid. Tens of millions of Americans could be left without power for weeks or even months—and, therefore, also without access to water, ATMs, the towers that transmit their cellphone messages, and other lifelines.

Koppel argues that neither the power companies nor the government has sufficient protective measures or backup plans to avert or recover from this kind of disaster. Because much has improved in the two years since Koppel began his research, the odds of us facing a sustained power outage are lower than Koppel calculates.

Koppel writes that a smartly directed cyberattack could disable enough giant transformers to cause huge swaths of the country to lose power—and that it would take months to procure and ship replacements to get the grid back online. But according to Gerry Cauley, the president of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, an industry trade group, there are now reserves of these transformers placed strategically across the country. Moreover, Cauley told me, cyber-repair teams are prepared to spring into action much the way that power-line repair teams from across the country did in response to Hurricane Sandy.

The energy-infrastructure team helps organize a biennial attack exercise, during which energy-company executives, along with relevant law-enforcement and other officials, convene for two days to simulate how they would work together in the event of an attack. In all, more than 4, people participated in the exercise. Along with executives and officials in Washington, local law-enforcement and power-company personnel across the country helped defend and recover from simulated cyberattacks, bomb blasts, and gunfire at multiple facilities.

Exploiting some of our vulnerabilities requires more expertise and planning than a one-off shooting spree in a mall. And, of course, they could be homegrown. Whatever one thinks of the Bush administration's foreign policy, the health of the U. Hirsh, of Newsweek, makes the classically Hamiltonian argument that American interests are best served by a pragmatic blend of military assertiveness and multilateral cooperation.

He further burnishes his Hamiltonian credentials with an impassioned attack on export controls on high-tech products; keeping American tech firms competitive is necessary for the nation's long-term economic health and military prowess. Hirsh finds continuities between the Clinton and Bush approaches to foreign policy: both presidents were reluctant nation builders drawn irresistibly into difficult overseas entanglements against their instincts.

At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World

In both its neoconservative and liberal internationalist incarnations, Hirsh argues, this Wilsonian foreign policy leads the United States toward infinite engagements and the danger of overstretch. The warning against neoconservative overstretch will clearly be a staple in foreign policy debates next year; Democrats looking to challenge the Bush approach while still advocating a robust defense of national interests would do well to consult this book. This site uses cookies to improve your user experience.


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