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Jewish World Review August 6, 2002 /28 Menachem-Av, 5762

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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Consumer Reports

No time for politics | Every morning some 50 of the most senior U.S. officials receive a top-secret classified description of the terrorist threats collated by our intelligence agencies from sources at home and abroad. The report is chilling for the sheer scale of the insistent menace it portrays. Dismiss 95 percent of it as scares, and you still know that America remains a target, and one that is disturbingly vulnerable nearly a year after 9/11.

This is the reality of the situation, and yet vested interests, political correctness, bureaucratic infighting, and partisanship all are getting in the way of protecting the American public from modern terrorism, which has the potential destructive power of a major war, endangering hundreds of thousands of people in one blow. Small terror cells, organized largely in secret abroad, can now kill on a scale that was once the monopoly of sovereign states that, by contrast, were restrained by the risk of retaliation from those they attacked.

We must adjust. Yet complacency rules. The public seems to assume that, as in the movies, some musical crescendo will tip us off to a terrorist attack. Congress, meanwhile, is playing politics with legislation that would establish a more efficient homeland defense department. We have no single central authority to coordinate, manage, and finance active pre-emptive defenses against a proliferation of threats to our very complex infrastructure. New gaps keep appearing. Last week, a naturalized American who allegedly forged documents for two of the hijackers escaped from local law enforcement officers in New Jersey and fled to his native Egypt; the FBI, after questioning him, had concluded that he apparently had not violated any federal law. Sadly the respect for civil liberties that the FBI's action reflects is helpful to the terrorists taking aim on our society.

Warnings unheeded. President Bush has proposed a new department consolidating 22 agencies from across a span of departments. A single cabinet secretary could resolve bureaucratic differences and give focus to public attention. The department resembles what was proposed early last year by the blue-chip National Security Commission/21st Century. Its specific prescriptions were ignored by the press and back-burnered by the White House, despite the credibility of the warning that inaction would guarantee many deaths on American soil.

It is very difficult to fashion a defense, but we did it before when faced with daunting complexities. After Stalin's 1949 explosion of an atomic bomb confronted us with instant annihilation, we mobilized a multifaceted, multiagency response. We contrived an effective nuclear deterrent, formed the NATO alliance, funded the Marshall Plan, and nurtured a variety of think tanks to find innovative ways to cope with the global threat. We now must devise a comparable multiyear, multiagency program for the surveillance of terrorists; for the protection of our borders, buildings, airplanes, and critical infrastructure; for limiting the level of damage after an attack; and for stimulating new thought on technologies and tactics.

This department must not be burdened by notions of political correctness that impede terrorist profiling and terrorist identification by means of fingerprinting or biometric surveillance. Above all, it must not be burdened by the management system and civil service regulations extant in the federal government today-rules that deprive managers from hiring whom they wish, firing whom they should, rewarding superstars, penalizing failures, and having virtually any power to shift more than a trivial amount of money from one purpose to another as circumstances change. Given that we are talking about nothing less than the security of America as a civil society, this new department must be free and clear of these constraints.

This is what the Democrats object to. Why? Because the civil service unions are their big supporters, both financially and at the polls. Tom Ridge, chief of the president's Office of Homeland Security, pointed out that Democratic objections would compel the new agency to operate with seven different complex personnel and pay systems. And Congress has been reluctant to give up its own prerogatives. It has even insisted that the new department head must come to Congress if there's a need to transfer 5 percent of funding to respond to unanticipated conditions. Imagine the Secret Service tied up in the same straitjackets in its duty of protecting the president. It is just as ludicrous that civil service and budget rules should limit the protection of millions of Americans against enemies who may use nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

Homeland security is about national security, not about political security for members of Congress. If the Democrats continue their political posturing, they risk being blamed if anything goes wrong.

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JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman