“Osama bin Laden declared war on America.”
An FBI agent told me that in 1999 when we were planning security for the 2002 Olympics. My first thought was he must be crazy. Not bin Laden. The FBI agent.
I didn’t know who bin Laden was. But I did know that you had to be a Country to declare war on another Country. A person can’t do that. It all but says so in the war rules.
I remember humoring the FBI agent – his name was Ray — so I could get back to work on what I thought was something important: how to find housing for 15,000 public safety officers. But I was wrong about what was important. Ray was right.
I thought about that conversation this week when I got a call from a friend. He wanted to vent.
“It’s happening again,” he said. “We’re getting lazy about terrorism.”
My friend is a senior official in the family of agencies that cares about homeland security. He works in the field, not in DC. He’s on the road a lot, visiting the cities and states he’s responsible for, talking to people about homeland security. I know him as a levelheaded, reasonable person. He’s not an alarmist or a fanatic.
What he’s finding — what he’s worried about – is a diminishing interest in terrorism as a credible threat. Understandably, perhaps, in this economy, state and local counter-terrorism work (where it exists at all) is moving to the back burner.
“If the feds pay for it, maybe states will keep it going,” my friend said. “But it’s like the fire has gone out. It’s hard to get people concerned about terrorism. The capacity we’ve built over the last few years is starting to go away.”
If one has a suspicious nature, there are other signals we are regressing to a September 10th mentality. Neither terrorism nor homeland security were significant issues in the 2008 presidential race or the 11 races for state governor. The 2008 State Homeland Security Directors Survey, released in March, only mentioned terrorism 4 times: once in describing funds for the Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program, and three times as a part of a compound word. The Obama Administration is phasing out the use of the “war on terror,” possibly to be replaced — one hopes not — by “Overseas Contingency Operation.” Ignoring for a moment the sexist language, DHS Secretary Napolitano talks to Congress about “man-caused disasters” instead of terrorism. The FBI has reassigned people from counter-terrorism to mortgage fraud, and the agency’s director has to reassure congress that the FBI cares about terrorism.
“I heard a rumor that the JTTF was going to drop the first T from its acronym,” my friend said. “I think it was a joke.”
If someone (other than Dick Cheney ) wanted to build an argument that we are backsliding, there’s enough hay to build the straw man.
But there is enough straw around to construct the opposite argument.
“… [T]here is always a threat from terrorism,” said Napolitano on March 16, 2009.
“In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, counterterrorism became our top priority, and it remains our top priority today,” said Mueller on March 25, 2009
Preventing terrorist attacks in the homeland is Obama’s number 1 homeland security priority. “And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you,” the president said on March 27, 2009.
So what is the real story here? Is there a reasonable position between fear mongering and complacency? Between seeing a terrorist behind every mosque and changing the channel the next time someone mentions terrorism? Is it possible for homeland security policymakers to untangle the country from the war on terror trap and still prevent terrorist success?
To paraphrase Shakespeare horribly:
There is a tide in homeland security policy,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to preventing attacks;
Misread, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Another name for this pattern is the issue attention cycle. It works like this. Some people see things before others. Sometimes the vision is prescient, like the Gilmore Commission or the Hart-Rudman Commission reports. Or the Minneapolis FBI supervisor who, in August 2001, battled FBI headquarters because he was “trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center.” (Described on page 351 of Lawrence Wright’s amazing book, The Looming Tower.)
Sometimes the vision is … well, “loony” is the only word that comes to mind, but there probably are kinder descriptions. Some people warn of FEMA’s involvement with the “impending police state control grid.” Others worry about the soon-to-be-constructed (probably also by FEMA) “re-education camps for young people, where young people have to go and get trained in a philosophy that the government puts forward.”
Since we all get to use at least some version of the First Amendment, when you see something important happening, you have an obligation to tell others. Frequently you will be ignored because many people are also working on something different that’s also important. If you’re lucky, you may have a few helpful allies.
But then comes the alarming discovery that the danger you’ve been talking about is real. Four planes are hijacked and thousands die. Suddenly the public demands that something be done immediately to, in the American vernacular, “solve the problem.” Time passes, and with it comes the awareness of how hard it will be to solve anything. And how expensive. But time can also bring some measure of progress.
Then, from a parallel policy universe, the financial system gets lockjaw and the stock market loses half its value. Someone demands the problem be fixed immediately. Homeland security gets dumped into the second tier of public policy. And people like my friend start to see signs that the issue attention cycle is repeating.
I do not know how long these cycles last. I do know there were 8 years, 6 months, and 16 days between the February 26, 1993 attack on the World Trade Tower and the September 11, 2001 attack.
You don’t think the bad guys would be planning to strike again, on March 27, 2010? They couldn’t be that predictable. Could they?
So what is to be done?
You probably have your own list. I hope I learned from my Olympic experience ignoring early warnings and weak signals. But I also do not want to trade in fear or complacency. I think there is a middle path.
1. Keep the pressure on. If you think homeland security ought to be, at its core, about preventing terrorism, keep pushing. Hurricanes, tornadoes and the flu are threats. But the bad guys are not finished with us yet. There is at least one reputable scholar who sees al Queda as an amateur version of what is still to come. If you need reminding about why you care, look at Dave Grossman’s “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs.” It is possible to be alert and persistent, without being a jerk about it.
2. Speak what you perceive to be the truth, but leave space in your head for learning about other truths. My friend is reluctant to talk to his bosses about his perceptions. He is a realist. He knows what can happen in organizations if you go against the party line. That is sad. How many other perceptions and ideas about homeland security do we lose as a nation because, as someone once remarked, “Unemployment doth make cowards of us all.”?
3. Get ready for the Day After. You might think September 11, 2001 was the last time in our history the nation will be successfully attacked by terrorists. If you are not in that group, what changes would you want to see in the homeland security enterprise immediately after the next attack? What are your ideas for making sure we do not overreact to that attack? When terrorism returns to our land, what do we do to make certain, as Lincoln wrote, “We shall nobly save…the last best hope of earth?”