Politics at our peril

It’s true that we’re in a political season when every event is viewed through a political lens, but the public reaction to recent homeland-security alerts is as alarming as the alerts themselves. People are starting to view all government efforts on homeland security as mere political ploys aimed at the November election.
This is very dangerous, given that the election season is a time of genuine threat. We chronicled this in our June edition with our cover story, “Ballots in the Bullseye.” It doesn’t take access to classified information or so-called “chatter” to see that the terrorist success in Spain in March could translate into an attempted reprise in the United States. History is enough of a guide.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft have all issued warnings on this theme. At times they’ve done it ineptly, but Ridge’s absence from a particular stage or lack of specificity in his warning shouldn’t distract us from the fact that these officials are legitimately and responsibly alerting the American people that dangers are afoot.
Unfortunately, distractions abound as the political season deepens. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States revealed administration failures in addressing the terrorist threat prior to Sept. 11, 2001, shaking faith in the administration’s competence. The Senate Intelligence Committee report on intelligence lapses prior to the war in Iraq shook public and international faith in the ability, objectivity and accuracy of the entire US intelligence establishment.
Indeed, why should the public believe that vague warnings of terrorist activity have any credibility when they’ve seen the flaws in US intelligence gathering and they have no faith in the administration? And why should they believe the words of an administration that’s fighting for its life?
All this comes at a moment of great danger, as terrorist forces truly threaten the electoral process.
The credibility of America’s homeland security must be restored and it must be restored by removing political considerations—or even the appearance of political considerations—in the warning process.
There are ways to do this, such as creating a bipartisan board or panel to review threats prior to issuing an alert and putting that panel on stage when alerts are issued. The board could comprise members of Congress. Perhaps the current Homeland Security Advisory Council, which includes members from both parties and the private sector, could serve this function.
In the June edition of HSToday, I suggested that we schedule an alert in advance for a date certain —for example, Oct. 1—and do it with bipartisan blessing. This still seems to make sense.
Whatever is done, credibility must be restored to the whole homeland security alert system. The rough and tumble of politics is to be expected in a presidential election year but discrediting our own protective mechanisms for the purpose of political gain is suicidal. When it comes to terrorism, the ultimate price of cynicism is disaster.
Congress and HS
Also subject to politics are the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which both Republicans and Democrats are rushing to implement. To the degree that it’s possible to rise above partisanship the Commission did it and they’re to be congratulated on an excellent job.
It’s well to note that implementing the Commission’s recommendations does not automatically provide invulnerability. The idea of an “intelligence czar” may be helpful in synthesizing intelligence but it doesn’t ensure infallibility. The danger is that when an all-powerful czar makes a mistake it tends to be a whopper—just take a look at the Russian revolution.
The country is going to be examining and implementing the Commission recommendations for years but one recommendation that does stand out and which we’d like to enthusiastically endorse is that there be permanent homeland security committees in the House and Senate.
This was the subject of controversy prior to the Commission’s report and the trend seemed to be against homeland security committees. But it seems incredible that there wouldn’t be standing congressional committees to oversee the second-largest department of government and to deal with the unique challenges of homeland security.
This opposition to standing committees reflects the parochialism, territoriality and shortsightedness that confront the homeland security discipline in general, whether in police departments, county bureaucracies or the federal government. But the need and the urgency are obvious. The House and Senate need permanent HS committees. HST

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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