Three years later

September 11, 2004

THREE YEARS after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, most Americans believe the nation's security remains at risk, and rightly so. But while the focus of concern (at least in Washington) has been directed overseas, a more fundamental question needs to be answered:

Has the United States taken adequate steps to protect its own hometowns?

By one obvious measure, the answer would have to be yes. After all, no major terrorist attack has taken place on U.S. soil since 2001. But that's the wrong way to evaluate our nation's preparedness. As President Bush has so often reminded us, terrorist organizations often take years to carry out their strategies. A far more valuable evaluation is to look at the country's vulnerabilities, both the potential targets and our ability to prevent and respond to disasters, and then ask: Have we taken all reasonable and prudent steps to secure them? By that criteria, our homeland defense must be found wanting.

It is not a matter of bad intentions. Nor has some easy solution been ignored. Rather, it's a problem of too little money, too much politics, and not enough priority-setting. The massive Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency that is supposed to be coordinating these efforts, has proved to be a toothless bureaucracy.

The department's best work to date has been making air travel more secure. It's been an expensive undertaking (and not always pleasant for travelers), but airports now have far more sophisticated technology, and employ far more security personnel, than before. But there's been far less spent to bring U.S. ports, railroads, bridges and other potential targets to that same level of security. That's foolish. We know from experience that terrorists are more than flexible about targets and strategies.

Admittedly, some potential security upgrades are expensive. You could put a cop on every corner but the country would bankrupt itself in the process. So in a time of limited resources, are we spending money appropriately? Again, the evidence is troubling. As author Matthew Brzezinski recently pointed out in his book Fortress America, the Bush administration has spent $150 billion on war in Iraq but spends only $1.5 billion annually to help secure the nation's cities. It would cost a mere $1.3 million to outfit a port with a scanning device to see inside containers - yet we have so few of these that 95 percent of the cargo coming into this country isn't screened.

Worse, the money is too often misdirected. It's no secret that New York and Washington are the most likely terrorist targets. Yet federal homeland security assistance doesn't reflect that. This pot of money is doled out by Congress like pork. Wyoming gets more per capita than any other state in the nation. This has placed an inordinate financial burden on states and cities.

But it's not just a matter of money. As 9/11 demonstrated, there's a serious communications problem among emergency responders, civilian authorities and the National Guard (it was a problem in New York, at the Pentagon and at the Pennsylvania crash site). Yet we still haven't taken the needed steps to solve what should be a relatively simple problem - making sure first-responders can talk to each other.

None of these reforms can be accomplished overnight, of course, but we've had three years to try to get it right, without success. Congress and the White House are finally showing some signs of life on these issues - at least the 9/11 commission's proposals are getting serious consideration. That's a start, but the most powerful nation on Earth can do better. We may always have to live with risk, but we needn't surrender to complacency just three years later.

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