COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – They talked of al Qaeda and Guantanamo, of sneaker bombs and suitcase nukes, of the price of hardening the country against terrorist attacks and the cost of not.
The assembled anti-terrorism professionals tormented one another on whether there could truly be a war on terrorism – “it’s like having a war on bullets” – or if such semantic nitpicking somehow minimized the threat of violent, anti-American Islamists.
James Carafano had gathered these experts from across the country and from across disciplines to explore the safety of the homeland. In the end, the assembled brainpower offered no all-inclusive solutions.
“Are we really spending money on the right things?” Carafano, a homeland security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, asked rhetorically. “Do we even know how to ask those questions?”
If a consensus among security professionals exists three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, it’s that there still are not any comprehensive suggestions to debate.
Sure, cockpits shut tight now. Concrete barriers seal off monuments and public buildings. And an infant federal agency exists to protect Americans on their home soil.
Yet the experts – those assembled last week for a seminar in Colorado and others in the country – roundly agree that the true course of homeland security has not been set. Indeed, the consolidation of strategy-making has yet to take place either in Congress or the administration – split among disparate committees and agencies.
Meanwhile, choices made in the middle of this decade will cast the mold of homeland protection for at least a generation. That policy will have to sort out whether more money should go to domestic intelligence gathering, to better outfitting local police and fire departments, or to hardening seaports against the smuggling of terrorism materiel.
Thus far, many say, the effort is off to a sloppy start. Critics contend billions have been thrown across the country and within agencies to satisfy reflexive and sometimes cynical purposes of backside-covering politicians and turf-jealous bureaucrats.
Terrorism “is an open argument for spending endlessly and blindly,” said Daniel Goure, a military analyst from the Lexington Institute and an adviser to the Department of Homeland Security.
“We don’t have a strategy. We can’t even decide what the problem is. Is it a tactic? … An ideology? … A group?”
He suggests an aggressive approach to counterterrorism: Boost intelligence to uncover plots; more carefully monitor the transportation of people and cargo into the country; charge after terrorist groups abroad.
But for most other anti-terrorism tactics, he suggests keeping costs in check or the nation “can be in danger of breaking the bank in the interest of homeland security.”
Rex Archer, health director of Kansas City, Mo., and president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, worries that excessive spending for terrorism defenses might eventually come at the expense of vital, more cost-effective services.
“More people die from other people’s tobacco smoke than have ever died from terrorism,” Archer said.
Turning the dilemma another way, Heritage defense analyst Baker Spring said keeping the federal budget from collapsing under the weight of growing entitlement programs, debt payments, military expenses and other spending will determine whether the American economy can afford special homeland security efforts.
And while he said it was premature to blast spending at the Department of Homeland Security – like most analysts, he forgives early missteps as symptoms of the need to rush defensive measures in place – Spring said the agency lacked sophistication.
“There are some initial problems they’ve not come to grips with,” he said. For instance, spending in the department’s various agencies seems driven not by security specialists, “but by budget people.”
Deciding where to put limited tax money to security use means figuring out where threats run highest. Even on that element of gauging danger, consensus appears as elusive as Osama bin Laden.
For instance, Bradford Berenson contended that 80 suitcase-sized nuclear warheads went missing when the Soviet Union dissolved. He said detonation of one of those bombs in a major city could kill millions and trigger a worldwide economic collapse. Berenson, an associate counsel to President Bush during the first two years of his administration, said such stakes argued for increased surveillance of suspected terrorist cells in the country and a greater willingness to bypass criminal prosecution and turn to military detention of terrorism suspects.
“I don’t think we as a nation have overreacted since 9/11,” Berenson said. “I think we have underreacted.”
But former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, now head of a private security firm, challenged the assumption of threat.
“There are rumors that suitcase bombs are missing. … But no one can point to a specific route where they’re missing,” he said. The Gilmore Commission he headed in 1999 was initiated by Congress to evaluate the threat of terrorism. Nuclear weapons are extraordinarily hard to make, to maintain and to move about, he said. More than a decade after the Soviet Union disintegrated, Gilmore noted, none has been found on the black market.
“You have to write off (nuclear terrorism) attacks, or else you can’t deal with the conventional weapons that are actually going to be used,” he said. “You can’t get into a useful discussion unless you dismiss this mythology.”
Gilmore, Berenson and many others who study terrorism insist safety will come through better understanding potential enemies.
Robert Leiken, a scholar at the Nixon Center, said the news there was not encouraging. If America is better hardened against terrorism than three years ago, then the enemy is also proving resilient. Although no major attack has hit the United States since Sept. 11, terrorism around the world is on the rise.
That violence is driven largely by groups either affiliated with al Qaeda or inspired by its success, Leiken said.
“Al Qaeda is in a stage of recovery,” Leiken said. “It’s rebounding.”
So the group and its allies need to be watched for what they can, and want, to do, said Yonah Alexander, author of Terrorism and Homeland Security.
“The first line of defense, time and again, is the intelligence assessment. That’s the key,” he said. “You look at the attackers. You look at the targets.”
Defense contractor Lockheed Martin used the Colorado seminar to unveil a computer system in secret use since December that attempts to take information from government and industry, evaluate key risks and produce recommendations on where to beef up security.
Such technology could prove invaluable, said Carafano, but it does not solve the broader issues of setting priorities.
“Even when the (computer) model is all built and it’s perfect and everything works, there are still difficult decisions to make,” Carafano said. “We’re only beginning to figure out what decisions need to be made.”