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Shoring Up the Home Front

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
February 20, 2007

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This month Congress is considering legislation to better monitor foreign ownership of U.S. infrastructure and keep companies overseas from gaining too much sway over vital national security assets. With 85 percent of U.S. critical infrastructure already in private hands—both foreign and domestic—skeptics say any new Congressional regulation would have minimal impact on infrastructure security. Far more important than who owns it is the condition of our infrastructure, argues CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Flynn. His new book, The Edge of Disaster, suggests aging roads, levees, waterways, and electrical grids leave the United States unduly vulnerable to catastrophic terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Flynn will discuss the problem in a Wednesday evening webcast

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina underscores the danger of neglecting infrastructure. The decline of the levee system in New Orleans was well documented before its complete failure. Afterwards, reports revealed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ request for funds to repair the levees was reduced by 80 percent (Salon) in 2004. President Bush just submitted a $4.87 billion budget request (PDF) to fund the Corps’ activities in the coming fiscal year. But that is a marginal bump up from the previous year’s request despite increasing demand on the Corps to address growing decay in the systems it maintains.

The Bush administration’s counterterrorism approach has stressed that “We will fight the terrorists overseas so we do not have to face them here at home.” Experts, however, say money invested on the home front can greatly diminish the impact of any future attacks and possibly even deter would-be terrorists.

Most experts agree that U.S. efforts to shore up domestic defenses have fallen short. As investigative reporter Carl Prine describes in this CFR.org Podcast, government agencies have done little to keep chemical shipments from endangering thousands of Americans along the nation’s quarter-million miles of unsecured rail lines. This Backgrounder describes the potential for liquefied natural gas (LNG) to become a terrorist target. That’s just the beginning of the potential perils facing Americans every day, Flynn writes in U.S. News & World Report.

Achieving absolute security is impossible, but simple measures can greatly reduce risk. Nevertheless, generating the public will to take preventive measures on either a policy or personal level has proven difficult. Polls suggest (Red Cross) that while most Americans believe preparing for disasters is important, few have taken the basic steps necessary to do so. The Department of Homeland Security and the Red Cross offer instructions on how to properly prepare. Democrats in Congress recently passed a bill aimed at implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, many of which had previously gone unheeded.

Evidence suggests that motivating the public to invest in infrastructure could yield benefits beyond security. President Dwight Eisenhower’s initiative to build highways (GlobalSecurity.org) in the interest of national defense proved a boon for the U.S. economy. In this new podcast, CFR’s Flynn notes “every generation of Americans has faced major disasters,” and adds that “we’ve not only met those head on, but we’ve been a better nation coming out of them.”

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