Squandering money on the war leaves the homeland insecure

December 08, 2005|By G. JEFFERSON PRICE III

The "report card" issued by the 9/11 commission this week was a frightening indictment of the administration and Congress for their failure to protect Americans at home.

"Scandalous" was the word used by the commission's chairman and vice chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean and former Congressman Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana.

Scandalous that police and firefighters in the major cities still can't communicate reliably in a major crisis, scandalous that airline passengers still are not screened against a terrorist watch list and scandalous that homeland security money is doled out politically to communities at less risk, rather than to places where the risk is highest.

It should come as no surprise that an administration that took away resources from the war on terror to conduct its war in Iraq should also be found short when it comes to actually protecting Americans at home.

President Bush tells us that we are fighting terrorists in Iraq so we won't have to fight them at home. But the truth is that if the money being spent on that war were being spent to protect the homeland, we'd be a lot safer today than we are. The reason we are not secure at home is that making us secure is hugely expensive, politically unpleasant - as in making certain our nuclear and chemical installations are safe - and extraordinarily inconvenient.

America is a big country, and Americans are not accustomed to the sort of inconveniences inflicted on the citizens of other countries where terrorism is a constant threat.

This comes to mind every time I visit a sports stadium, get stuck in a jammed tunnel or go to see a heavily attended movie.

How many times a month are average Americans in such places, surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of their countrymen, without sufficient precautions having been taken to make certain no one has come in with a bomb that could kill them all?

Air cargo in aircraft that millions of Americans fly on is not checked, we are told. The cargo coming into our seaports is not sufficiently screened, we are told. The airlines are going bankrupt, so we can't put more pressure on them to do the job right. The amount of cargo coming into our ports is so great that it would be impossible to check it all.

And here's a high-security risk you don't hear much about, if anything at all: the trains.

This week, I traveled from Old Saybrook, Conn., to Baltimore carrying a very big, very heavy suitcase -big enough to carry a big bomb. When the train stopped in New Haven, a woman carrying three even heavier suitcases boarded the train.

No one inspected my suitcase, and after it was stowed, I could have gotten off the train anywhere en route without anyone noticing the suitcase had been left behind. Ditto for the lady who brought on three heavy suitcases, in apparent violation of Amtrak rules.

This train, like any passenger train on the Northeast corridor, had a scheduled 15-minute stop in New York's Penn Station, one of the busiest train stations in the center of one of the busiest cities in America. Tens of thousands of people must be in that station at peak periods. It's right next to Madison Square Garden.

What if someone put a bomb on a train headed into Penn Station and set it to go off during that 15-minute layover? If the bomber were inclined toward suicide, he or she would not even have to leave it unattended. So far as I could tell, the possibility hasn't even been considered.

But if half the money being spent on the war in Iraq were allocated to the issues raised by the 9/11 commission, those issues could be addressed and we would be safer, maybe even on Amtrak.

Instead, as the members of the 9/11 panel reported, "While the terrorists are learning and adapting, our government is still moving at a crawl.

"We believe that the terrorists will strike again. If they do, and these reforms have not been implemented, what will our excuses be?"

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun. His e-mail is gjeffersonprice@yahoo.com.

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