Panel sees progress on homeland security

But attention of citizens, government is diverted by the crisis of the day

December 16, 2003|By Richard Simon | Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The United States has made progress in its efforts to beef up defenses against terrorism, a federal commission reported yesterday as it warned against complacency in the absence of any attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.

"The momentum appears to have waned," the panel said in its final report, expressing concern that there may be a "perception of enhanced security that causes the nation to become complacent about the many critical actions still required."

The commission, headed by former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, called for a sustained effort to strengthen security that would not be subject to the "ebb and flow" of other events, such as an influenza outbreak, the California wildfires or the capture of Saddam Hussein.

"The fact that we have captured Saddam Hussein doesn't mean that we can rest on the homeland security front," Gilmore said. "This is going to be a long battle."

Established two years before the Sept. 11 attacks, the 17-member panel - frequently called the Gilmore commission - is more formally known as the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The commission said that while the creation of the Department of Homeland Security has improved the nation's readiness, much more needs to be done, including better coordination with local and state officials.

"Although the nation better understands the threats it faces, ... the panel is concerned that the momentum, which accelerated full force following the Sept. 11 attacks, may have been interrupted, that scarce resources may not be prioritized and applied most effectively, that fragmentation continues to hamper efforts for better coordination across all levels of government and with the private sector," the report said.

George Foresman, the commission's vice chairman and deputy director of the Virginia Office of Commonwealth Preparedness, said one of the major challenges is: "Who's looking at the big picture?"

The Department of Homeland Security came into existence in January, amid a government reorganization aimed at strengthening defenses against terror.

But the commission found significant problems of coordination in the new department, which amalgamated 22 disparate government agencies, and recommended that the national strategy be directed by a White House entity - perhaps the Homeland Security Council - with "clear authority over the homeland security budgets and programs throughout the federal government."

The panel noted that while it is critical to improve homeland security, it is equally important to preserve civil liberties.

"As more terrorist attacks occur," the report said, "the pressure will rise to lessen civil liberties. ... Governments must look ahead at the unintended consequences of policies in the quiet of the day instead of the crisis of the moment."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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