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America The Unready?

Sun Dec 23, 2001 8:08 pm

Thought the forum might find this article interesting...

Homeland security

America the unready

Dec 20th 2001 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition

Preparations against another terrorist attack range from the patchy to the poor

SETTING up the Office of Homeland Security in early October—the first such cabinet-level creation for a decade—George Bush called for “a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard our country against terrorism.” He still hasn't got one.

Evidence of ambivalence towards domestic security is everywhere. More than 100 bills have been introduced into Congress with the label “homeland security” on them. Yet compared with the $15 billion doled out to the airline industry, the cash they provide for things like emergency health care is puny. When the governor of California posted troops on bridges in response to a terrorist alert, he was widely criticised for panicking the public.

The contrast with the judicial response to terrorism is instructive. Whatever one thinks of John Ashcroft's proposals to increase the powers of law-enforcement bodies, they are unmistakably a serious effort to organise the Justice Department for war against terror. No such claim can be made for the administrative response so far.

To be fair, there has been a response. In early December America signed an agreement with Canada allowing customs officials to inspect factory shipments on site, rather than clog up the borders. A similar deal with Mexico is in the works. Security has been stepped up at nuclear power stations, oil pipelines, and so on. Congress has passed an airline-safety bill, making all baggage screeners federal employees and requiring airlines to put steel doors on cockpits. And a bill in the Senate would require passenger lists to be checked against a new immigration database as well as making it harder for students from countries that sponsor terrorism to get visas.

Fine. Border and visa controls need tightening (even though they can never be perfect). But doubts remain about security at nuclear power plants (see box on next page). And although airline security has got better (not hard), the airline bill played only a modest role in that. Most of the discussion focused on the secondary question of who should employ baggage screeners (rather than what they should do) and the compromise reached was an extraordinary muddle: screeners will be federal employees for three years, presumably driving the (admittedly incompetent) screening companies bust—after which they will get a chance to return to business.

And the weakest part of America's border defences remains unaffected: the Coast Guard. By its own admission, it ranks 39th out of 41 countries in terms of its equipment. Modernising its fleet of 80-odd ships and 200 aircraft and helicopters should begin next year, and it will take a decade. For the moment, the Guard does not have enough vessels both to patrol the high seas for drug smugglers and to protect ports. Of the 16,000 containers that come into America by ship every day, only 500 or so are inspected.

These operations are all run by federal authorities. The news is better at the local level. On September 11th, New York was able to move 1m people out of the city by boat and cordon off lower Manhattan within an hour. Some of the injured were being treated in New Jersey within minutes. In early December state and city officials from around the country met in Pittsburgh to draft similar new downtown evacuation plans.

So the locally run “instant response” system is in better shape than the preventative programmes administered by the federal government. But even here, there are exceptions. Plans for the evacuation of schools vary wildly. In New York on September 11th, many of the emergency services were unable to communicate by cellphone for about six hours because there was no way to give some users priority over others, or to switch calls between different networks when one was damaged. A priority system is under discussion, but telecoms firms are balking at the cost ($2 billion, they claim).

Anyway, New York is not typical. Because of previous attacks, its emergency services are in better shape than most. And the pattern of casualties on September 11th—many deaths, only light injuries—would not be repeated in a biological or chemical attack. They would produce thousands of serious illnesses.

The biggest gaps in America's defences lie in neither the federal nor local fortifications, but in the areas where different levels of government fuse together. Here there are problems to do with money, co-ordination and political will.

State and local governments bear most of the organisational burden in responding to terrorism (there are 11,400 FBI agents but 650,000 local policemen). The National Governors Association reckons homeland security will cost the states $4 billion extra in the first year. The states are facing big budget shortfalls, so they are clamouring for federal help, but they will not get much. The mayor of New Orleans, Marc Morial, complains that of the $10 billion to be spent on homeland defence this year, states and cities will get just 5%. That may be an underestimate. But the balance of spending is clearly skewed unfairly towards the federal government.

Even with more money, there would be problems of co-ordination. When the mayors of Baltimore, Gary (Indiana) and Reno (Nevada) tried to improve ties between the FBI and local police, they retreated in frustration. The executive director of the Conference of Mayors expresses “serious concern regarding the lack of intelligence sharing by the federal government.”

The Office of Homeland Security was set up specifically to deal with such problems. It is far too soon to declare failure. But the early signs are not good. The office has been set up on the model of the National Security Council. The head of it, Tom Ridge, has executive power but no formal spending authority from Congress, as department heads do. The NSC has usually worked best when its head has been on good terms with the president. Mr Ridge, an old friend of Mr Bush, certainly has that advantage. The difference, though, is that the NSC is largely a policy-making post. The homeland director has operational responsibilities. It remains unclear whether he can exercise those without budgetary powers, too.

Somebody call a doctor
All the doubts about money, co-ordination and political will apply to the most worrying aspect of homeland security: the medical response. Though it has some of the best hospitals in the world, America faces two big problems in dealing with mass casualties. In the search for efficiencies, its hospitals have largely eliminated “surge capacity” (the ability to cope with a flood of patients). And its public health system, which is supposed to track the progress of infectious diseases, has been starved of funds for decades.

The two weaknesses demand very different administrative solutions. Surge capacity can only be created by regional co-ordination—and the region has to be big, so that the local hospitals are not all overwhelmed. A bossy central figure needs to work out how competing private hospitals and public medical facilities, such as those run by the Veterans' Affairs Department, would share the burden. Sadly, no such “top-down” effort is yet evident.

By contrast, the public health system requires “bottom-up” rebuilding. Half of the 3,000 state and local health departments do not have high speed Internet access (a matter of course in law-enforcement agencies). One in ten does not have e-mail and 80% do not have emergency response plans. To modernise the system would require about $10 billion over the next five years. In the current fiscal year, it has got around $500m. Half of that will be swallowed up by the cost of anthrax testing.

On balance, then, America's preparations against future terrorist attacks range from patchy to poor, and Mr Bush's “comprehensive national strategy” seems a long way away. Perhaps the most convincing defence of the response so far is that, in an open society unaccustomed to domestic terrorism, it makes sense to start slowly and build cautiously. That will be fine—so long as the terrorists take their time too.

Copyright © 2001 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

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Joined: Wed May 23, 2001 6:25 pm

RE: America The Unready?

Mon Dec 24, 2001 2:47 am

Interesting article, though it seems from what many on this board have posted, the better airline security seems to be better appearance of security, rather than the real thing.

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