By any measure, the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security is an historic event. Not since the establishment of the Department of Defense in 1947 has the federal government attempted to bring together so many different functions. In fact, the new reorganization is more sweeping than the creation of DOD was, with more agencies serving a broader array of purposes struggling to fit under the same roof.
President Bush and members of Congress raced to set up the new department because they feared the jumble of existing agencies had created opportunities for terrorists to slip through—and hampered the government’s ability to block future attacks. Bush launched his proposal on the very day FBI agent Coleen M. Rowley told a congressional committee that she had warned her superiors before September 11 of suspicious people seeking flight training, but that her warnings had gone unheeded. Listening to stories like hers would make anyone worry about how to connect the dots of security information; among those most obsessed with dot connection has been the president himself. But while it’s unquestionably a good idea to launch a cabinet-level effort, President Bush’s plan leaves important dots unconnected: namely, the critical relationships between federal strategists and state-local first responders.
That awful September 11 morning revealed worrisome gaps in the federal-state-local system—from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s struggle to reach the White House by cell phone to the problems the nation’s capital had in deploying its emergency plan. In the weeks that followed, the same problem played out repeatedly around the country.
Officials in Wisconsin dealt with more than 400 anthrax scares, not one of which proved real. Determining that the scares were in fact false alarms stretched first responders and the state testing lab to the breaking point and revealed obvious weaknesses in state capacity.
Even worse were the gaps that emerged in local preparedness. Fire fighters and police officers swarmed to the scene in Madison, the state capital, when one company’s worried workers found a suspicious powder. It took 45 minutes for the employees to realize they should call the government’s communicable-disease specialist. When the specialist finally arrived on the scene, the fire fighters wouldn’t allow her to cross the crime-scene tape.
Neighboring communities discovered that their police officers couldn’t talk to each other in emergencies because their radio frequencies were incompatible. The New York fire department’s own investigation has revealed that communication breakdowns were the most serious problem at the World Trade Center disaster—but in many parts of the country, communication systems are even more poorly connected.
The surveys of state and local preparedness, moreover, show big gaps in the degree of protection. The nation’s state and local governments vary widely in their capacity to prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks. But they are the ones who must build an effective security system that can operate almost instantly when it has to. The federal government cannot do this for them, no matter how much money or effort it puts into the problem.
The most important dots to be connected, in short, are the ones that exist between the new homeland security department and the homes of people all over America. The Bush plan still leaves most of them unconnected. It’s a top-down plan without any real strategy to work from the bottom up. If there was any bit of luck at all in the terrorist attacks of September 11, it is that the most serious attacks occurred in the city best equipped to respond. Had they happened anywhere else, the consequences might have proven far worse.
The new department will provoke fierce bureaucratic battles in Washington, and these battles will receive the bulk of the media coverage. But it will be urgent to put them behind us as soon as possible and focus on the basic problems—how to organize governments throughout the country to get the job done.
What would a realistic, carefully constructed federal plan to fight terrorism look like? To start with, it would unite federal, state, and local officials in a crash program to define the foundation of preparedness. The federal government would set the basic standards that all state and local governments should meet, just as it does for programs ranging from Medicaid to highway construction. The feds would structure federal grants as incentives to reach the goals, and assess state and local performance against them. The new agency would gauge best practices and help state and local officials teach each other new methods and strategies, and cut months, if not years, off the learning curve.
Most of all, the federal government would focus on the central mission—security and preparedness—and would fashion a productive partnership with the people who work the front lines. If instead of connecting the dots between Washington and the front lines, the new agency becomes mired in turf conflict, we risk leaving ourselves even more vulnerable to the new risks we face.