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Homeland Insecurity

Author: Stephen E. Flynn
May-June 2009
American Interest

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Is homeland security still on the nation's radar screen? One can be excused for wondering. After all, we're heading toward the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and so far al-Qaeda has yet to strike us again. The technicolor national threat level has been frozen at "yellow" since January 2004, and the new Secretary of Homeland Security, former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, has mused aloud that maybe it should be abandoned altogether. The issue was missing-in-action during the marathon 2008 presidential campaign. The presidential transition then came and went without the Obama Administration publicly outlining its plans for the homeland security mission, and there were no expressions of outrage or dismay from editorial pages or by media pundits. Indeed, the only media spark Secretary Napolitano has managed to generate during the early days of her tenure arose from something she didn't do: She omitted the word "terrorism" from her prepared testimony before Congress on February 25, 2009.

So at first blush it seems as though an issue that consumed the entire country's attention just a half dozen years ago somehow left Washington in one of former President George W. Bush's White House moving boxes. But that's not the case: The Bush team's counterterrorism and homeland security legacy constitutes a political landmine for President Barack Obama, with the detonator set in Bush's farewell address and exit interviews, which proclaimed as his one, indisputable accomplishment that Americans had been kept safe from acts of terrorism since 9/11. The implicit message was that President Obama would place the nation at risk if he did not embrace and build on the measures the Bush Administration had put in place. Lest the message be lost in the celebratory din of the Obama inauguration, former Vice President Dick Cheney made it explicit in a February 4, 2009 interview with Politico. He argued that there is a "high probability" that terrorists will attempt to deploy a nuclear weapon or biological agent in a major American city, and warned that policy changes leading away from the methods by which the Bush Administration combated terrorism would bolster the likelihood of a terrorist success.

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