Homeland Security Agenda for the Obama Administration

More than seven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, where does the United States stand in trying to ensure that such a terrible tragedy – or something even worse – never again befall this country? And what should President Obama’s new homeland security team, led by Secretary Janet Napolitano, emphasize in its efforts?

Former President Bush and his associates frequently emphasized, in their last days in office, that they are proud of the fact the United States was not attacked again on their watch after Sept. 11, 2001. Indeed, even for those of us who are critics of much of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy, I would argue it is correct to acknowledge substantial progress on the homeland security front – with much better intelligence cooperation domestically and internationally, improved procedures for verifying the movements of people and money, and other important steps having been taken as federal spending on homeland security tripled during Mr. Bush’s time in office.

However, for all the progress, the list of enduring vulnerabilities is almost as long. For example, the Border Patrol has been increased from 9,000 to 20,000, but most land borders are still fairly easy to penetrate. Progress is being made toward screening cargo on passenger airlines, but 100 percent screening will not be in place until 2010. And for all the cargo now inspected, most arriving in the country by sea still is not. The screening that is taking place for such cargo may not be an adequate substitute for actual inspection, and will require constant monitoring and improvement.

Standards for reliable identification remain too weak in some states; some drivers’ licenses should make better use of biometric indicators and of digitization technologies for verifying proper ownership. The Real ID act will require that they do so soon, for those wishing to use their drivers’ licenses as proof of identity to travel on airplanes or enter federal buildings. But not all states may comply fully.

Trains and subways remain inherently soft and unprotected targets in general. Only about half of key transportation assets or systems have developed risk mitigation strategies. Moreover, this figure applies only to planning and not actual implementation. More broadly, only very few cities devote substantial police resources to address terrorism threats.

Hospitals are not ready to treat victims of chemical or biological attack for the most part. While more antidote has been procured for some specific biological threats, methods for developing, producing, stockpiling and above all distributing vaccines against biological agents are wanting to date. The nation’s food supply is not particularly well secured. Biological weapons detectors are being developed, but they would usually pick up agent only four hours after dispersal – and as of now even this capability is still in the development and testing stage.

The country’s military still has limited capacity for rapid response for domestic emergencies. NORTHCOM (the U.S. Northern Command) does have about 8,000 troops on call to help with emergencies, but they may not have the attributes needed to respond effectively. Procedures for helping the National Guard organize regionally, so neighboring states may help each other more dependably and quickly in major crises, are still informal and fairly weak. National Guard links with NORTHCOM appear better, and more equipment may have been predeployed to states where it is most likely to be needed, but the ability of Guard units to help each other promptly and directly is less developed.

Perhaps the nation’s main stadiums and other large public arenas are partially protected against terrorism, the other half are not. Trucks carrying hazardous materials are not amply protected at all stages in their normal operations. Except perhaps in New York, large buildings are generally not being better outfitted with simple counterterror capabilities, even when being refit or built anew – shatterproof glass in ornate lobbies is not used enough, air intakes are still too easily accessible.

Not all hypothetical vulnerabilities must be addressed. Trying to do so could bankrupt the country. In addition, as Brookings Institution scholar Jeremy Shapiro has argued, al Qaeda and affiliates seem to have a strong proclivity for certain types of attacks – principally those involving airplanes and truck bombs – as well as a penchant to attempt only the spectacular against U.S.-based targets. Having “overachieved,” so to speak, on Sept. 11, they are reluctant to attempt garden-variety terrorism. They might believe such smaller attacks would fail to live up to the standards and expectations they have created among their followers as well as the American and global publics.

Moreover, while they may still harbor some hopes of being able to attack with weapons of mass destruction, their capacity to do so given the state of the global al Qaeda diaspora and network is extremely limited. On balance, as Mr. Shapiro argues fairly convincingly, they are probably not inclined to attack economic targets such as ports, food distribution systems, and information systems, moderately unlikely to employ Hamas-style low-level attacks, and quite unlikely to have access to weapons of mass destruction (especially the most threatening types).

Even for one taking a somewhat less sanguine view than Mr. Shapiro, practical considerations have to compete with worst-case planning. Many targets are extremely hard to protect, meaning the premium should be on stronger prevention (through intelligence and border controls and the like) rather than site defense or consequence management. And some types of attacks are worse than others, suggesting the country should indeed focus primary attention on catastrophic rather than more modest risks.

This framework for identifying homeland security priorities – focus on preventive efforts, on catastrophic threats, on the types of attacks already preferred (or actively contemplated and planned) by al Qaeda, and also where possible on activities that provide additional benefits beyond the security sphere – was introduced in earlier Brookings work. It guides the recommendations listed below as well:

  • Airport and airplane security initiatives (“Sniffers,” Cargo Inspections, etc.): $350 million.
  • Border Patrol and related activities: $300 million.
  • Coast Guard force structure growth: $900 million.
  • “COPS II” initiative to help local police forces with counterterrorism: $100 million.
  • Biological detectors and Food and Drug Administration food inspection initiatives: $300 million.
  • Container cargo inspection improvements: $250 million.
  • Hazardous cargo inspection/security initiatives: $100 million.
  • Improved planning capacity at the Homeland Security Department: $100 million.

The net effect of these suggested budgetary changes of just under $2.5 billion a year is a modest investment in our homeland security. Even in these tough times, it is affordable. As budget season opens in Washington, such an agenda should be considered by the new administration and new Congress.