- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

On Feb. 16, in open session before the Senate, America’s intelligence chiefs sounded a chilling alarm. CIA Director Porter Goss bluntly testified that “it may only be a matter of time” before a terrorist group “attempts to use chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons” against us. In his written statement, Acting Homeland Security Secretary James Loy, perhaps with the anthrax attacks of 2001 vividly in mind, seconded that warning, telling senators that “any attack of any kind could occur at any time.” Neither specified whether the time frame for a future attack was days, months or decades.

What are we to make of these danger signals? Are they credible or not? If they are credible, is our government doing its reasonable best to protect the nation against these threats? Or is this business as usual — a partially declared war on global terror admittedly being waged with huge sums of money but one that suffers from the ills of a sclerotic government struggling to get its act together?

Alternatively, should we be skeptical about these warnings? After all, this is the same administration that was absolutely certain Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that we would find them in Iraq along with direct links to al Qaeda. Could they be as mistaken here in certitude about a future attack?

The prudent answer is that no one can predict with certainty if or when we will be attacked next. But it would the height of folly to behave as if we are immune to terror. After all, it is painfully true that al Qaeda and other extremist groups who have perverted Islam as ideological cover to advance their own political agendas have every intent of opposing the United States with all their might whether or not we are attacked at home. So how should the nation respond to these latest warnings beyond what is already being done?

First, despite the hundreds of billions and possibly trillions of dollars that have been spent on defense and homeland security since the Twin Towers came crashing down, who knows if this massive effort is following a coordinated and sensibly integrated master plan government-wide or whether a coherent approach is absent?

The only way to get an answer is to look and look hard. That means establishing a “September 11-type commission” before another September 11 occurs. Its purpose would be to conduct an incisive and thorough assessment, in essence grading ourselves, in how effective the effort to defend the nation really is; what we should be doing that we are not; and what we are doing that we should not be.

The criterion for such an examination must be reasonability. Any nation is inherently vulnerable. No nation can ever be entirely safe much, let alone all of the time. The question is how well we are proceeding along that path. The results could be as worrisome as Mr. Goss’ testimony. Almost surely such a commission would find that government is still not properly organized for the task; that there is no coherent national architecture for self-defense; that coordination between and among federal, state, city and local authorities is lacking; and that an electronic or cyber communications “backbone” to link these crucial yet disparate organizations in a sensible way has not been built.

Second, none of this can work unless Congress is part of the solution. This means that profound change is needed within that body. There are simply too many committees and subcommittees, too much overlapping authority and jurisdiction, and too little time for serious debate. For there to be constructive change, the president or the public must demand of, and pressure, its congressional representatives to take such steps.

Third, as the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board concluded last fall, we can never win the global war on terror unless we win the war of ideas. In simplest terms, this means understanding the enemy far better than we do. For that purpose, sometime ago, this column urged the creation of an entity that drew from the Manhattan Project and Bletchley Park. The former built the A-bomb; the latter broke the axis codes during World War II. This entity would possess both the hard and soft science skills necessary to break the thinking of the enemy and the capacity to invent new ideas, tools and means to defeat it.

This is serious stuff, protecting the nation against determined enemies, many of whom are prepared to martyr themselves in the process. Government may be doing the best it can. However, it is the duty of citizens not only to trust but as Ronald Reagan said in a different context “to verify” that its government is effectively engaged. And verify we must if we are to be safer.

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