iven terrorist attacks associated with recent political transitions in Indiana, homeland security has not been a significant campaign issue thus far. But since terrorism could present the next president with his first crisis, there are a number of steps the next president should take, beginning literally the day after the election.
The most obvious is to oversee an effective transition. Immediately after the election, the president-elect’s homeland security team should be rapidly vetted, granted security clearances and receive extensive in-briefings— in short, form a shadow government. To its credit, the Bush administration has already laid the groundwork for this. Congress must rapidly confirm key leaders beginning on Inauguration Day. Everyone involved should take politics out of homeland security, a step that is long overdue.
Once in office, the next president should urgently increase federal support to state and local authorities. The best weapon we have to stop the next terrorist attack is less the soldier in New York City has 5,000 fewer police on its streets today than on 9/11. Better intelligence, information-sharing and technology can make police more productive, but with growing budget deficits, cities and states will be hard pressed simply to maintain the capabilities we have now.
Rather than cutting grant funding to cities and states as the Bush administration has attempted to do in its last two budgets, the next president must increase funding for community policing and emergency response to help communities cope with higher operating costs and new requirements.
During his first year in office, he should beef up defenses in specific risk areas such as aviation and chemical security. We can anticipate what terrorists might do from what they have already done. Aviation remains a favorite target. Since suicide hijackings have been made more difficult due to improved security at airports, the greater threat now is smuggling bombs on planes. While all passengers and luggage are physically inspected, this is not the case with air cargo that can travel on the same aircraft. Cargo data is screened, but only some of the cargo is inspected. Much more can be.
Insurgents in Iraq have tried to convert chlorine gas tanker trucks into improvised weapons. The District recognized this danger immediately after Sept. 11 and converted its Blue Plains wastewater treatment facility from chlorine gas, which can be exploited by terrorists, to liquid bleach, which cannot. While the Bush administration opposes the concept, the next administration should support new legislation that would push chemical facilities to operate in ways that are more terror-proof.
Not only should there be stronger private sector security standards, but the Department of Homeland Security must have resources to do the job we expect of it. Right now, only 430 agents are dedicated to air cargo and roughly 100 to chemical security. We don’t need an army to improve homeland security, but in key areas we need more than the posse we have now.
Finally, he should redefine what we mean by homeland security and develop a new strategy. The new administration should use the development of a first-ever Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, mandated by Congress and due at the end of 2009, to evaluate the current state of homeland security, re-evaluate risks to our society and establish clear missions and priorities that will attract broad-based support. Even as we try to prevent another terrorism attack, we must also prepare for natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and pandemics, while protecting critical networks and infrastructure from global system disruptions. He needs to find the right balance.
He must put terrorism back in perspective. It is a real risk, but not an existential threat. We underestimated the danger posed by Osama bin Laden before 9/11; we have inflated it since. Terrorists win when governments overreact, and this is exactly what we’ve done. We have occupied Iraq (despite no link to 9/11), the cost of which this year alone will exceed the economic impact of 9/11. We have reorganized our government multiple times. We are a nation of immigrants, but we are less welcoming than we once were. We are a nation of laws, but we have jailed American citizens indefinitely without due process.
We are better than this. The next president can show us how to be safe without compromising our liberties and values. He can help us be better prepared without being afraid. He can build secure borders that are still open to the world. He can make homeland security a priority rather than a political prop.
P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow and director of homeland security at the Center for American Progress.