- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 25, 2001

The Bush administration is trying to preserve a counterterrorism system that many observers say won't withstand repeated terrorist attacks.
Policy analysts and certain lawmakers fault the president's decision to avoid a giant government expansion by retaining a decentralized domestic security network that consists of 40 separate federal agencies and a myriad of state and local bureaucracies. All are linked by voluntary agreements and promises of cooperation.
The president's creation of the White House Office of Homeland Security, and his appointment of a close friend to run it, is a move to ensure that the disparate organizations function in harmony despite their different missions, priorities and cultures.
However, critics say the system assures turf battles and confusion. They note that the U.S. counterterrorism and civil defense arrangement differs radically from tested systems in countries that have been rocked repeatedly by bombings, assassinations, street battles and sabotage.
Indeed, the possibility of friction between agencies under stress became apparent earlier this month, when New York's firefighters refused orders to trim their force at the World Trade Center Twin Towers disaster site. The firefighters fought with New York police to gain access to the debris.
As some see it, the president must at least vest budget authority and more direct power in the 2-month-old homeland security office headed by Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania governor. Mr. Ridge's effectiveness currently depends mainly on his personal relationship with the president.
But a debate over that arrangement is brewing in Congress. Like the question of federalizing airport baggage inspectors, the issue pits those comfortable with increased government control against advocates of limited federal government.
Sens. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, and Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, propose creating a big Department of Homeland Security. The new department would house the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Customs Service, the Border Patrol, the Coast Guard and certain other agencies responsible for critical infrastructure protection. It would plan and coordinate government activities relating to homeland defense.
"Governor Ridge can handle the job if he has sufficient authority," says Mr. Specter, but "as a practical matter, it is impossible for Governor Ridge to go to the president every time there is a turf battle. There is a need for governmental structure in regards to homeland defense."
Canada, France, Germany, Israel and the United Kingdom "had to stumble about before they arrived at a solution that provided a direct line of authority with assured cooperation between states and federal government and … a common information database, " says Martha Crenshaw, a well-known specialist on international terrorism at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
All those countries have a single ministry or the equivalent responsible for countering terrorism and handling terrorist events. Each ministry roughly like a U.S. department has a rigid command and control structure that dictates who is in charge during any phase of a terrorist attack and recovery.
Each country has special terrorism-related laws that allow for special investigations and increased penalties for terrorism. Each has national terrorism-prevention policies.
"All relevant government authorities in my country have had to adapt to deal with terrorist situations," says an unidentified official at the Israeli Embassy. "Unfortunately, government agencies have had much experience. We have a well-oiled machine. Even the schools are involved. They teach children what to beware of and how to react.
"Since I have been a child, I have known my bags would be checked before I went to a movie or when I went shopping," says the Israeli official. "I am suspicious of a plastic bag lying around."
Suppose that in the United States, terrorists bombed a big and busy shopping mall and, perhaps, fired automatic weapons at customers attempting to flee flames, falling debris and gunshots.
Who would be in charge and responsible for taming the situation?
"It would be the first arriving fire service officer. He would station the firefighters, the hazardous materials team, the emergency rescue teams, and tell arriving police what to do," says Alan Caldwell, director of government relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
"There's no signed agreement about this. We just follow an incident management system that's taught in fire academies," says Mr. Caldwell, a recently retired fire chief.
But fire chiefs aren't versed in combat.
"So I suspect you'd have to set up a 'unified command,'" says Mr. Caldwell.
State and federal law enforcement and health and environmental protection officials, among others, would quickly begin arriving at the scene. At the local level, "a handshake" agreement probably would govern who would do what, says Mr. Caldwell.
But the FBI is considered the lead federal counterterrorism agency. It would take charge.
In some jurisdictions, however, local police agencies and FBI officials have difficulty seeing eye-to-eye. Then too, specialists of different emergency response teams have conflicting priorities.
"It's not a perfect system, but there have been presidential directives that mandate the different agencies must get along," says Mr. Caldwell.
The General Accounting Agency, which dispatched researchers to Canada, England, France, Germany and Israel to learn how those nations organized to cope with terrorist attacks, found that "each country places the majority of resources for combating terrorism under one ministry" and has "interagency coordination bodies." Each country "also has clearly designated leadership at the scene of terrorist incidents."
In England, the chief constable (the police chief) controls all aspects of the incident in a locality. In Israel, the National Police take charge.
The Mounties control events in Canada except in the big cities, where by special written arrangement, municipal police may take charge. France empowers the politically appointed prefect of each region to be the incident commander in his region, but Germany's state police are the first responders, who later hand control to the federal police.
"These countries learned by their experience. Now we're in a critical mode, and we finally have to figure out what we have to do," Miss Crenshaw says.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide