Sunday, February 20, 2005

Our Unnecessary Insecurity

NY Times
February 20, 2005

Our Unnecessary Insecurity

Sept. 11 changed everything," the saying goes. It is striking, however, how much has not changed in the three and a half years since nearly 3,000 people were killed on American soil. The nation's chemical plants are still a horrific accident waiting to happen. Nuclear material that could be made into a "dirty bomb," or even a nuclear device, and set off in an American city remains too accessible to terrorists. Critical tasks, from inspecting shipping containers to upgrading defenses against biological weapons, are being done poorly or not at all.

Costly as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were in lives, the death toll from a chemical, biological or nuclear attack could be far, far greater. A nation as open and complex as ours can never be totally safe from such dangers. But there is a great deal that can be done, without compromising our basic liberties, to eliminate obvious openings for terrorist attacks.

The biggest obstacles to making the nation safer have been lack of political will and failure to carry out the most effective policies. The Bush administration and Congress have been reluctant to provide the necessary money - even while they are furiously reducing revenue with tax cuts. The funds that are available are often misdirected. And Washington has caved to pressure from interest groups, like the chemical industry, that have fought increased security measures.

Most of all, the government has failed to lay out a broad strategy for making the nation more secure. Among the most troubling vulnerabilities that have yet to be seriously addressed:

Chemical Plants After Sept. 11, the Environmental Protection Agency identified 123 chemical plants that could, in a worst-case attack, endanger one million or more people. There is an urgent need for greater action to protect them. But the chemical industry, a major Bush-Cheney campaign contributor, has bitterly fought needed safeguards. In her recent book "It's My Party Too," the former administrator of the E.P.A., Christie Whitman, said that chemical industry lobbyists thwarted the reasonable safety rules that she and the Department of Homeland Security tried to impose.

Nuclear Materials A nuclear attack in an American city is the ultimate nightmare. The desire, on the part of the terrorists, is there: Osama bin Laden has declared acquisition of nuclear weapons to be a religious duty. Fortunately, there are considerable logistical and technological hurdles to terrorists' setting off a nuclear device. But it is far from impossible, and a so-called dirty bomb, which disperses radioactive material without a nuclear explosion, could be less of a challenge to make. The key to prevention is identifying and securing nuclear weapons and materials, especially in the former Soviet Union.

Nuclear Power Plants There are more than 100 nuclear reactors producing energy in the United States. Many of them are in heavily populated areas. Some may be vulnerable to a suicide attack from the air, particularly if a plane managed to crack the wall around the pool of spent fuel, causing a fire that would send clouds of toxic gas into the atmosphere. Setting off a truck bomb could also have a devastating effect. While the plants are protected by armed guards, not all of those teams are of the highest quality. If the government can federalize airport luggage checkers, it should be able to provide the same consistency to security around nuclear power plants.

Port Security One of the greatest threats to national security is the possibility that a weapon of mass destruction could be smuggled in on one of the millions of shipping containers that arrive from overseas every year. The government is doing more than it once did to inspect these containers, but there is still far too little money and manpower devoted to this crucial task.

Hazardous Waste Transport Millions of tons of highly toxic chemicals and nuclear waste are shipped by railroad and truck, much of it through or near densely populated areas. The District of Columbia Council recently adopted a temporary ban on such shipments after a Naval Research Laboratory scientist warned that if a 90-ton tanker car carrying chlorine crashed during a Fourth of July celebration at the National Mall, it could kill 100,000 people in 30 minutes. But it makes no sense that one municipality is protecting itself against a worst-case situation while in other parts of the country, regulation of the transport of hazardous materials remains woefully inadequate.

Bioterrorism The anthrax attacks of the fall of 2001 only began to suggest the devastating power of biological weapons. While officials are all too aware of the mortality rate that would follow an attack with weapons-grade anthrax, smallpox or plague, controls are still spotty. Lethal pathogens are too often stored in insecure laboratories.

Given these serious gaps, it is disturbing to see limited resources used as inefficiently as they have been. Fighting the last war, the Bush administration is devoting far too great a proportion of domestic security spending to preventing the hijacking of commercial aircraft. For a long time, it engaged in a draconian crackdown on academic visas, while the nation's borders - the likeliest entry points for future terrorists - remained as porous as ever. And with the stakes literally life or death, the pork-barrel politics that have controlled domestic security funds - giving Wyoming more per capita than New Jersey - are simply unconscionable.

While the administration does too little on one hand, it overreacts on the other, and seems oblivious to how its excesses are actually making America less safe. The abuse of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and the refusal to abide by either international law or basic constitutional principles do little to protect the nation, but make it harder for us to enlist much-needed allies, and provide powerful talking points for terrorist recruiting drives.

Many Americans have a false sense of security because there has not been a terrorist assault in the United States since the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were attacked. But that may have less to do with terrorists' intents than their timeline. Eight years went by between the 1993 attack that failed to bring down the World Trade Center and the one that finally did.

Looking back, we feel a natural frustration at all the warning signs that were ignored before Sept. 11. There is now a wide array of government reports, private studies and even best-selling books alerting us to remaining vulnerabilities. If the United States is hit by another attack at one of those points, we will have only ourselves to blame.