Heckuva Job,
Homeland Security

Euripides said that “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.” First there was the madness of cornering Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora and letting him go. Then there was the launching of the meaningless Global War on Terror, which turned most of the world against the United States, empowered al-Qaeda, and actually helped to increase the number of terrorists. And finally there was democracy promotion and Iraq. Democracy promotion has only aided Islamists battling against the hated regimes that run their countries, and Iraq is now truly the “central front” for combating terrorists in a ruin of a country where terrorism never existed before the Americans arrived.

Here at home there is the madness of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), designed to pull together every resource necessary to defend the United States against a repeat of 9/11. DHS’ strategic plan promises “to mobilize and organize our nation against terrorist attacks,” but it has morphed into one of the world’s most bloated and inefficient bureaucracies, possibly rivaling the 600,000 employees of the Indian Postal Service. With a budget of $41 billion and a staff of 180,000, DHS is headed by the hapless Michael Chertoff, a former Department of Justice lawyer and Talmudic scholar with, alas, little background in either actual security or bureaucratic management. In February 2005 Chertoff replaced the equally clueless Tom Ridge, whose qualifications for the job included his tenure as Republican governor of Pennsylvania and his unquestioning loyalty to President Bush. But is it is altogether too convenient to blame Chertoff and Ridge. Making sense of Homeland Security might well be beyond the capability of any human being.

One of DHS’ first missteps was the creation of a poorly conceived and confusing color-coded security warning system. The innovation did not last for long, and its chief impact was on local law enforcement and first responders, who were required to increase manning levels each time the level went up. The warning system continues to be in place without the color coding, but it is almost universally ignored. The level that pertains most days, “elevated, significant risk of terrorist attacks,” suggests nothing in particular except that there might possibly be an incident somewhere. The rise and fall of the color coding coincided with the federalization of airport security procedures under the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which continued only until the money ran out. Many airport security screeners are again low-paid contractors, just like before 9/11.

Some other failures by Homeland Security have been more conspicuous and potentially more deadly. Late last year nuclear material sufficient to create two dirty bombs was successfully smuggled across the Mexican and Canadian borders. The two test runs carried out by the Government Accountability Office involved small amounts of radioactive cesium-137, a nuclear material normally used in testing equipment and gauges. It was enough to set off radiation detectors and would have been sufficient to combine with a conventional explosive to create a so-called dirty bomb capable of producing widespread contamination. In both cases, the radioactive material was detected by screening equipment, but the couriers carrying it were able to talk their way across the border using false documents indicating that the cesium-137 was licensed and destined for use in a research lab. The test runs were somewhat contrived in that they were run at border crossing points where radiation detectors were known to be installed. On the plus side, the equipment worked properly even though the border control agents failed to stop the nuclear material. On the minus side, only one out of 10 border crossing points has such equipment, and a Homeland Security objective to have all 3,034 US entry points covered by the end of 2009 will likely not be achieved. The inspectors also reported that the radiation detectors work too well – they go off frequently when no radiation is present, giving a so-called false positive signal. One crossing point had to turn them off because they beeped at every cargo. There have been a number of other tests involving various scenarios to smuggle nuclear, chemical, and biological agents into the U.S. In three out of four cases, the smugglers succeeded, even when they were relying on documents for entry that were so poorly forged that it should have been readily evident to customs and immigration officers.

If an attack were to take place, the United States is no better prepared to withstand a terrorist nuclear bombing now than it was when 9/11 took place. A recent study compared the results of a hypothetical attack on select cities using either a 20-kiloton crude device that could possibly be engineered by a terrorist group and a larger 550-kiloton weapon such as might be obtained by theft or purchase from the arsenals of the former Soviet Union. Even the smaller device would kill up to half of the people in the city centers and poison most of the survivors with radiation, and the larger device would create a zone of complete destruction over a radius of four miles. Six million people would die in New York City, for example. The report warns that the devastating impact of the attacks is largely attributable to poor planning by the federal government. Many of the deaths that would occur in the aftermath of the bombing could be prevented if emergency treatment centers were decentralized. Currently, most of the hospitals with emergency burn centers and facilities for other specialized treatment are located in city centers and would themselves be destroyed by the bombing. If the right steps are taken to create incentives to relocate the facilities, fatality rates of 90 percent among burn victims could be reduced to 30 percent or less. Needless to say, the right steps have not been taken.

The record in securing the border against terrorists and illegals is equally dismal. Only two percent of the travelers crossing into the United States from Mexico are subject to “biometric matching,” which is the name for the process that involves confirming the biometric information that is embedded in the new generation of passports and other identity documents by scanning a thumb print and comparing it to the stored information. The Mexican border, which is high volume and reliant on quick-pass vehicle and pedestrian lanes, does not even have the equipment that scans the documents installed in many crossing points. Where it is installed, it frequently lacks key components, is non-functional, or is just switched off to prevent backups at the border.

Once a visitor is inside the United States he is home-free. No mechanism is in place to monitor his departure, and furthermore there is no projected date for such a program to be up and running. This means that the U.S. government cannot actually determine if a visitor is still in the United States overstaying his visa. Departure software that has been tested at a number of airports doesn’t work. Many visitors score positive when their names are reviewed in the database, meaning that they have to be taken aside for interviews and secondary screening. Nearly all of those so screened turn out to be completely innocent and are the victims of a poorly designed database that has difficulty in differentiating variations in names.

The Department of Homeland Security has also failed to find a workable solution to the requirement that U.S. port workers be issued with secure biometric identification cards, which Congress has insisted must be in place and operational by the end of the year. The program has been beset with cost overruns and technical problems since it was originally mandated four years ago. The watchdog Government Accountability Office notes that poor management by Homeland Security has meant that there has been a doubling of contract costs, going from slightly more than $1 billion to $2 billion. Homeland Security must issue the documents to more than 650,000 workers to include any employee who has any access to the secure area of the ports, including people who work filling up vending machines in employee rest areas. The powerful port workers’ unions have successfully lobbied for a watered-down verification process that will enable many illegal alien workers to obtain the cards using the false documents that they currently possess. Names will only be screened against terrorist and criminal lists. This means that Homeland Security, which has no access to Social Security records, will be unable to confirm identities or work history, making the entire exercise pretty much pointless.

And finally there is Homeland Security’s 250,000-name no-fly list, which continues to vex many American travelers in spite of Department of Homeland Security assurances that steps are being made to correct its many errors. It is easy to be placed on the list based on false or misleading information. It is not possible to find out what the derogatory information is, and it is extremely difficult to get one’s name removed. It now appears that some people might be on the list for political reasons. On March 1, Professor Walter J. Murphy, McCormick professor of jurisprudence emeritus at Princeton University, attempted to board a flight at Newark Airport to attend an academic conference organized by Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities. Murphy is a retired Marine Corps colonel who fought in the Korean War and a recipient of the Silver Star. He is more than 70 years old and has been a faculty member at Princeton for over 10 years. When attempting to check his suitcase, Murphy was informed that he could not fly because he was on the terrorist watch list.

Murphy was convinced that a mistake had been made, as he has flown many times since 9/11 without issue, but the TSA officer who interviewed him could provide little in the way of an explanation. The officer eventually asked Murphy if he had participated in any peace demonstrations. Murphy responded no but added that he had recently given a public lecture at Princeton in which he had criticized the Bush administration’s interpretation of the Constitution. The TSA officer checked with some superiors and told Murphy that the lecture was the likely cause of his inclusion on the list.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.