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After All That, Is Our Homeland Any Safer?

Author: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow
October 18, 2009
Washington Post

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THE TEST OF OUR TIMES

America Under Siege . . . and How We Can Be Safe Again

By Tom Ridge with Lary Bloom

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 288 pp. $25.99

HOMELAND SECURITY

Assessing the First Five Years

By Michael Chertoff

University of Pennsylvania. 203 pp. $24.95

In a single week last month, the U.S. government broke up an alleged al- Qaeda cell in Colorado, rushed aid to flood victims in Georgia and opened fire on three vans filled with illegal immigrants trying to break through the nation's busiest border crossing. The incidents were all reminders, as if we needed any, of the many threats to what we now call "homeland security," a big, sprawling idea that spawned a big, sprawling department to stop bad things from happening and clean up when they inevitably do.

Just over six years since its creation, the Department of Homeland Security is still too young for any definitive verdict on its success or failure. With its component agencies scattered around D.C. and some of its operations outsourced to private companies in Virginia, it has yet to become a whole that adds up to more than its parts. Its first two secretaries, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, left no consistent legacy to guide what the government's third-largest department should be doing-and more important, why. For Janet Napolitano, the secretary now sorting through that inheritance, the reflections of her predecessors leave more questions than answers.

Tom Ridge's "The Test of Our Times" is much like his tenure as secretary: folksy, deferential, unfortunately error-prone and yet, on the biggest questions of the post9/11 years, rather sensible. The book's release has been a public relations nightmare, making Ridge once again look inept against more experienced bureaucratic rivals. He had to back down from his speculation that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sought to raise the terror alert just before the 2004 presidential election for political reasons.

In contrast, Michael Chertoff, the tough Justice Department prosecutor who succeeded Ridge in 2005, has written a book that is smart, coherent and disciplined, much like the successful reorganization he oversaw at the agency. Sparingly titled "Homeland Security," it is a collection of essays written for policy journals and was quietly released by a university press. Yet Chertoff's conclusions about how the United States should deal with the new security threats are more troubling than Ridge's because Chertoff would place far fewer limits on the exercise of state power in the name of fighting terrorism.

Ridge candidly admits that he knew little about al-Qaeda or terrorism when George W. Bush brought him to the White House after Sept. 11, 2001, though a stint in Vietnam had taught him real-world lessons about unconventional warfare. He came to a balanced view in which he understood the serious threat from Islamic extremism but also recognized the high costs of overreacting.

Chertoff, however, believes the dangers are all on one side of the ledger. The United States, he warns, is at war "with an ideology that is every bit as fanatical and ruthless as that of fascism or communism"; it is "a struggle whose outcome might well determine the fate of our civilization and this globe."

Both secretaries believe in "risk management," but they approach it in very different ways. Faced with what he saw as a severe but manageable risk, Ridge adopted a three-part test for weighing a new security measure: Will it make us safer? Is it consistent with the Constitution and the rule of law? And will it have good or bad economic consequences? Throughout his book, he laments the costs incurred when he and others ignored those tests: the public confusion, the indefinite detentions and mistreatment of terror suspects, and the tougher border and visa restrictions that discouraged overseas visitors. Ridge shoulders plenty of blame, both for his own mistakes and for those made by officials who bested him repeatedly in bureaucratic sparring.

Chertoff, confronting what he sees as an existential risk, focuses almost solely on U.S. vulnerabilities. He systematically lays out the dangers posed by cyber-attacks, biowarfare and improvised explosives, and offers lucid strategies for addressing them. While acknowledging that perfect security is a perilous illusion, Chertoff worries much less about the costs of meeting those threats. Instead, he argues for powers even greater than the nearly unlimited ones the government already has to jail and deport illegal immigrants suspected of having terrorist ties.

He fears that local interests may impede the completion of the fence on the U.S.-Mexico border, an ill-conceived project that will cost $9 billion over the next two decades and has already been breached more than 3,000 times along the 600 miles built so far. The greatest pitfall, Chertoff believes, is not a misguided mission, but rather faltering resolve and growing complacency as the memory of the 2001 attacks fades.

Napolitano could learn at least two lessons from her predecessors. One is that Homeland Security has still not defined its mission. Battling al-Qaeda has little to do with the more prosaic tasks of policing borders, managing immigration and cleaning up after floods, earthquakes and fires, all of which the department must do.

The second is that management matters. Despite the improvements at Homeland Security under Chertoff, huge problems remain. To take one of many examples, the department can't keep track of many of the 30,000 immigrants it holds in local jails and private prisons; just last week Napolitano announced measures to try to get a handle on the problem.

But if Napolitano can't get the small things right, she will have a hard time tackling the big ones.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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