Page 2 of 3

Red Alert

It was billed as America's front-line defense against terrorism. But badly underfunded, crippled by special interests, and ignored by the White House, the Department of Homeland Security has been relegated to bureaucratic obscurity.

Liscouski was the assistant secretary from the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate, one of DHS's five main divisions, and his mission was to make sure Al Qaeda didn't blow up a power plant, bridge, or nuclear or chemical facility somewhere in the United States. A former cop and Coca-Cola executive, he was a runner, I could see, when he finally strode into the conference room an hour late for our appointment. He didn't lack confidence. "I don't think you understand the complexity of what we are trying to do," he declared, after we exchanged a few pleasantries. He whipped off his suit jacket and marched to the blackboard. On it, he drew a box divided into 13 squares, each representing different components of our critical infrastructure—water, energy, telecoms, and so on. For the next 10 minutes he worked on a matrix, explaining the role of vulnerability assessments being conducted to establish the overlapping risks of terrorist attacks to America's economic backbone. Finally I asked, "What are you doing about it?"

"We don't do the doing," said Liscouski. "We do the coordinating. Our role is to look at the big picture of what is really threatened and determine how to protect it." I asked for an example. Liscouski said that for security reasons he didn't want to go into specifics. "What about the chemical industry?" I inquired. Survey after survey has shown that the 15,000 chemical plants in the United States are probably the most vulnerable pieces of infrastructure in America. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 100 of these plants could each endanger up to a million lives with poisonous clouds of ammonia, chlorine, or carbon disulfide that could be released into the atmosphere over densely populated areas by a terror attack. The military ranks a strike against the chemical industry as second only to biological warfare (and ahead of nuclear devices) in the total number of mass casualties it would produce.

Following 9/11, there was an urgent push to curtail some of these risks. Democratic senator Jon Corzine of New Jersey, whose state was home to 9 of the 111 most vulnerable factories in the country, introduced legislation to police chemical producers; the bill passed unanimously in Senate committees and quickly garnered White House support. Named the Chemical Security Act, it sought to codify parameters for site security, ensure the safer transport of toxic materials (a single railcar filled with 33,000 gallons of chlorine could kill up to 100,000 people), and establish a timetable to shift away from the use of the most noxious chemicals. Some major chemical users have already been doing that voluntarily. In Washington, for instance, the city water treatment plant switched in 2001 from chlorine to a slightly more expensive, but less dangerous, bacteria remover. The change cost the average D.C. water consumer 50 cents per year, but reduced the risk of terrorist hijackings by eliminating hundreds of chlorine tankers rumbling through the capital region.

The Chemical Security Act seemed set to sail through Congress. But as the memory of 9/11 grew dimmer, the petrochemical industry launched a well-coordinated and well- financed campaign to scuttle the bill. Led by the powerful American Petroleum Institute, lobby groups bombarded senators, members of Congress, and the White House with thousands of letters, position papers, and reports on the adverse economic impact of the Chemical Security Act. Chlorine and its derivatives went into products that accounted for 45 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, they argued. Without chlorine components, they lamented, even the backyard gas grill would disappear. The American pastoral would be forever changed.

The White House quickly cooled toward the idea of regulating chemical security. The seven Republican senators who had endorsed the bill in committee withdrew their support. And $5.7 million in petrochemical campaign contributions helped to ensure that Republicans took the Senate in the 2002 midterm elections and that the Chemical Security Act died without a vote. In its place, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) proposed that chemical factories be allowed to police themselves and that the government have no oversight or enforcement powers over safety rules.

As a result, three years after 9/11, virtually anyone can still gain entry into thousands of chemical sites across the country. I had witnessed this myself in places like Baltimore and Los Angeles, accompanying city officials eager to expose the lack of security measures. Liscouski, though, appeared unmoved. Was DHS working on any mandatory security codes for unprotected chemical plants? Fencing requirements, cameras, lights, guards? "Our job is not to regulate," he said. "By regulating, we could be missing out on important gaps. Not all chemical plants produce materials with the same levels of toxicity. Regulating is not our role," he repeated. Why not? I asked.

"We are not going to turn this country into a fortress," he snapped. "I have every confidence that the private sector will act responsibly, that they will do the right thing on their own." That was quite a leap of faith. Last year The Economist published a survey of 331 large corporations, finding that their security spending had risen by just 4 percent since 9/11, and that much of the increase was a result of higher insurance premiums. Only one in five of the companies said their spending would continue to increase. "Left to themselves," notes Stephen Flynn, a homeland security scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, "factory owners will do nothing. They have no incentive to. If factory A, say, spends a million dollars on security upgrades, its products can't compete with factory B down the street, which spent nothing. Only legislation can level the playing field."

Liscouski started to glance impatiently at his watch. I still had no clear idea of what his infrastructure protection division actually did, other than draw Venn diagrams. "We've sent people to two dozen chemical plants we've determined are the highest risk," he finally offered.

"To shore up security?" I asked.

"No," he said, getting up to leave. "To advise them on what their vulnerabilities are."

Special interests routinely trump security at DHS. Several of Tom Ridge's former aides now lobby for companies in the security industry. So does Tim Hutchinson, a former Republican senator from Arkansas and the brother of DHS undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, who heads the department's massive Border Protection and Transportation Security Directorate. (A meeting Tim Hutchinson had arranged for an Arkansas client with his brother in D.C. was strictly "social," the undersecretary assured reporters when word of the get-together was leaked to the Washington Post.) In the 18 months since the idea of a homeland security department was first floated in 2002, registered counterterror lobbyists multiplied fivefold in Washington, according to the New York Times. The lobbyists' cruder pitches included wooing potential clients with promises of "securing your piece of the homeland security pie" and advice on how "to avoid the land mines and find the gold mines of homeland security."

The lobbyists have been busy in Congress as well. One lawmaker from Missouri infamously slipped a last-minute provision into the homeland security bill to benefit his campaign donor Philip Morris. What exactly the tobacco giant had in common with counterterrorism was anyone's guess. But bowing to business has seriously undermined some DHS programs. Take the much-hyped national smallpox vaccination drive that President Bush launched with great fanfare in late 2002 by having himself inoculated on television. The plan called for 500,000 emergency personnel to be vaccinated by mid-2003, but by the June deadline fewer than 40,000 had done so. At a hospital I visited in Denver, only 7 out of 2,000 employees had gotten the shots. Why so few? In part, according to a doctor at the hospital, because the Bush administration had sided with HMOs and insurance companies to deny paid sick leave to people who might develop adverse reactions to the vaccine. "It's unfair and makes people suspicious that the government doesn't have their best interest at heart," says Dr. Stephen Cantrill, who runs the hospital's emergency room.

But deference to special interests is just one of DHS's problems. Entrenched bureaucratic interests and especially a lack of high-level political support have all played a role in thwarting the agency's development and its ability to attract topflight staffers.

Born blind because it was denied the capacity to collect or properly analyze raw intelligence, DHS must rely on the fiercely territorial Federal Bureau of Investigation to be its seeing-eye dog. That the FBI's counterterror division has not been folded into the department, as logic and the experience of other nations would dictate, is a severe handicap, and a clear sign that the new department does not enjoy favor with the power brokers at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Its lack of prestige has been demonstrated in many ways, from Tom Ridge having to cede control of key antiterrorist responsibilities (such as tracking terrorist financing) to John Ashcroft, to near-mutinies by Secret Service agents disgruntled at having been assigned to the DHS B-team. In one notable humiliation that shows how little clout a DHS badge carries in the capital, the Washington Post reported that only 22 of the 92 FBI agents in a cybersecurity unit that was transferred to the department opted to come on board, because remaining at the Bureau gave them higher status. And in 2003 alone, 15 prominent members of Washington's intelligence community turned down offers to head its intelligence analysis unit before a taker was finally found.

For Washington's ambitious, experienced technocrats, DHS simply hasn't been a career choice. One notable exception, Paul Redmond—a 33-year CIA veteran who had accepted a key post in the department—resigned last summer shortly after testifying to Congress that his office had been able to attract only 26 intelligence analysts. Part of the problem, he said, was that there was not enough space at department headquarters. But the key issue was that because the White House had decided that DHS's intelligence unit should rank lower than the FBI and the CIA, the department's computers were not secure and couldn't even receive classified data.

Aside from being hamstrung by its reluctant architects, DHS simply has not been able to compete with Iraq in the battle for resources. With the president's tax cuts trimming government revenues, and budget deficits reaching levels not seen since the Vietnam War, money is tight for programs the White House does not see as top priorities. Homeland security has been a main target of domestic penny-pinching—one reason why officials at department headquarters have had to share phones, why firefighters and other first responders across the country still don't have radios that work on the same frequencies, and why airline cargo is still not being properly screened.

Like much about the homeland security effort, DHS's balance sheet looks healthier on paper than it is in reality. At $40 billion, the figure sounds impressive at press conferences and allows the president to say that he is spending big bucks not just in Baghdad, but at home as well. But that number is somewhat misleading. For one, about a third of the total doesn't go to DHS, but to other agencies such as the Pentagon. And most of the remaining $27 billion is not new money—as opposed to the $150-plus billion that has been spent toppling Saddam Hussein. Much of it simply lumps together the pre-existing budgets of the 22 federal agencies that make up the department. Between them, the Coast Guard, Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Lawrence Livermore National Lab alone accounted for $19 billion in federal spending before 9/11. The Transportation Security Administration and its roughly $5 billion annual budget are new expenditures, but most of the other agencies have received only marginal increases since being folded into DHS. The truth of the matter is that homeland security is very much a shoestring operation—so much so that worried Democrats in Congress keep trying to throw more money at it.

Page 2 of 3
Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.