Defending the homeland

Posted: Apr 07, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON--Asked why al Qaeda might have been trying to kill him in 1999--he abandoned his house for a month and acquired Secret Service protection based on an alert from Yasser Arafat--Richard Clarke, who The Washington Post says ``coordinated U.S. efforts to hunt and kill al Qaeda's senior leaders'' years before 9/11, simply says: ``We were killing them. Fair enough.''

Asked for the good news about homeland security, Rep. Chris Cox, the California Republican who chairs the new Homeland Security Committee that oversees the new Homeland Security Department, says the government is learning how to have ``actionable'' threat assessments. When the terror alert stage gets raised to ``orange,'' that is because of specific information that Cox says should not cause extraordinary, expensive and identical measures in every community. It is wasteful--and dangerous--to have the Sioux Falls police and the Los Angeles Airport both responding with preset procedures to a single alert from Washington.

Cox has chosen as his committee's staff director John Gannon, who served as deputy director of the CIA and was chairman of the National Intelligence Council in September 1999 when it declared: ``Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al Qaeda's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft ... into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, or the White House.'' Gannon stresses that better intelligence enables us to ``bound the threat,'' to understand that ``there are not endless terrorists with endless threats.''

Clarke was the leading counterterrorism official from 1995 until his departure from government in February, and now is consulting, lecturing and writing about terrorism. He says the good news about counterterrorism is that people now care about it, and it is not ``resource-constrained.'' The bad news is that ``no one's in charge.''

Part of Cox's committee's job is to see that the absence of a single counterterrorism czar does not allow the homeland security issue to become politicized, and the homeland security program to become the mother of all barrels of pork. Oversight is especially crucial because the mere invocation of homeland security concerns tends to trump all other arguments. But cities and states--and businesses--that are in deepening financial distress will be glad to know that Cox believes that their national security measures should be financed out of the national security budget.

Many Democrats, uneasy about supporting the war, may try to flank Republicans on the right by throwing money at homeland security. Much of that money would go not to fight wars, which fracture Democratic unity, but to largely Democratic constituencies--big-city mayors, and to unionized police, firefighters and other ``first responders.'' Democrats can always outbid Republicans in a spending contest, risking only bigger deficits, which they will blame on Republicans anyway.

Cox says prevention, not increasing the number of fire trucks and first responders, should be the top priority of federal homeland security policy, and is economical: Intelligence is cheaper than cleaning up the damage from attacks. The federal government's intelligence apparatus is a $40 billion asset. The Homeland Security Department's job is not to have its own intelligence operation, but to analyze and distribute intelligence so that immigration, customs and border officials have a better idea of what they should be looking for.

Clarke, invited to speculate about terrorists' ideas for targeting U.S. homeland security, says that if al Qaeda has a dozen terrorists to strike the U.S. economy, instead of putting teams of four on airplanes, it might do more damage just by placing one bomb at a dozen shopping malls. Or a bomb in Las Vegas. ``No tourism, no city,'' says Clarke. He says al Qaeda likes spectacular effects and, because U.S. airline security has substantially improved, it is known to have been talking about hijacking three Asian airliners and crashing them into the pens for nuclear submarines at Pearl Harbor.

He says terrorism will be defeated with the help of friendly intelligence services, perhaps Jordan's and Morocco's, putting sleeper agents into al Qaeda. Meanwhile, he worries about the radicalization of portions of the Arab community in the United States, in part by the preaching of Islamic extremism in U.S. prisons. And he worries about how little we still know about what the former Soviet Union's biological weapons programs developed, such as new strains of diseases resistant to antidotes America has developed, and what has been done with them.

Clarke and Cox are both accomplished worriers. These men and this moment are well-matched.