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Homeland Security Address

Author: John Edwards
December 18, 2002
Brookings Institution Press

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Senator John Edwards, D-NC
Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.
December 18, 2002

Good afternoon. I'm very glad to be here today, particularly because scholars here have made such important contributions on the issues I'm going to discuss.

I love this time of year. Families come together; the whole country seems to take a breath. All Americans have a chance to pause long enough to remember what is truly precious, to think about what really matters for our families, for the communities we live in, for the country we love. And it's very natural, when you think about what you love, to think about how to protect it.

That's what I want to talk about today, our sacred responsibility to safeguard America.

It's a responsibility we all share as Americans, and I'll talk more about what all of us can do in a little bit, but let me begin with our responsibility in government.

The first and foremost responsibility of any government is to protect its citizens from harm. It is time for all of us, without regard to party, to say what everyone of us knows: Washington is not doing enough to make America safe. If the administration continues to do too little, it will be too late again. We must do better.

I don't accept the notion that another devastating attack is inevitable. I will never accept that. It's fearful, it's defeatist, and it's a victory for the terrorists. Our job is to do everything we can to stop them. We have to summon every last bit of American strength, guts, and wits to win this war. If we do, we will.

Protecting America requires clear leadership from America around the world, and a comprehensive homeland defense here at home. Today I'm going to focus on what we need to do to strengthen our domestic security, offensively to catch terrorists before they attack, and defensively to prevent harm if an attack comes. First, we need to dramatically improve our ability to find and stop terrorists in our midst; second, we need to secure our borders; third, we need to harden the likeliest terrorist targets to make them less vulnerable; and fourth, we need to significantly strengthen domestic readiness so we are always prepared to respond to threats.

What we do here is, of course, cast in the context of America's responsibilities abroad. I have said this before and I want to say it again: I reject the false choice between fighting the war on terrorism and containing the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, specifically the looming danger of Saddam Hussein.

We must disarm Iraq, peacefully if possible, but by force if necessary. At the same time, we must remember why disarming Saddam is critical to American security – because halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and ensuring they don't fall into the wrong hands, including terrorist hands, is critical to American security. This is a problem much bigger than Iraq. We must do more to support the many disarmament programs already in place to dismantle weapons and prevent access to weapons-grade materials in Russia and the former Soviet states; we must commit the maximum resources necessary to support cooperative threat reduction initiatives like Nunn-Lugar.

When it comes to fighting the war on terror around the globe, we have to keep the big picture in mind, and stay true to our principles. This administration needs to rethink its visceral, short-sighted rejection of greater leadership in post-Taliban Afghanistan. We need a new relationship with Saudi Arabia, one that no longer ignores that regime's pattern of tolerance and denial when it comes to terrorists. We need to address the grave proliferation risk posed by North Korea, and we need to do it in a way that is clear, competent, and consistent. Last week's stop-right-there now go-ahead routine in the Arabian Sea makes America look indecisive and undermines our credibility. Extraordinary risks require extraordinary measures. North Korea doesn't play by international rules so they shouldn't be allowed to profit from them.

All of this is critical to American security, but none of it will prevent the next domestic attack if our domestic defense remains as vulnerable as it is today.

Less than two months ago, the bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission said, "America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil. In all likelihood, the next attack will result in even greater casualties and widespread disruption to American lives and the economy." That is intolerable.

We have made some progress in the fifteen months since September 11th. We have had no major terrorist attacks at home for over a year. We've remade our airport security systems. We should get some modest improvement from the massive reorganization that has begun with the passage of the Homeland Security bill.

President Bush deserves credit for the successes; at the same time, he's also accountable for too many failures to make progress, for the wrong priorities, and for wrong-minded steps that undermine our values without advancing our security.

First and foremost, there simply is no comprehensive strategy for domestic security. We've addressed a few vulnerabilities, not the full range of challenges. Yes, we've created a massive new federal agency, and it's a positive step that I supported. But at this point the new Department of Homeland Security is more of a political achievement for the administration than a substantive achievement for America's security. A new agency and new office space won't help us infiltrate terrorist organizations operating right now in our country. It won't stop terrorists or their weapons from getting through the holes in our borders or our ports. It won't provide equipment and training for police to protect bridges and tunnels, or cause companies to protect vulnerable chemical plants. It won't help police officers, firemen, and EMT's on the front lines to coordinate their response in the event of an attack. In short, the homeland security bill is a perfect example of how long it takes Washington to come up with an answer that won't even solve the problem.

Second, this administration continues to have its priorities out of whack. Against all reason, the administration stubbornly clings to tax cuts that will benefit only the top 1 percent of Americans while arguing that we can't afford vital measures to protect the very lives of our people. Congress has passed legislation to strengthen border security, port security, cybersecurity, and guard against bioterrorism. I wrote provisions in all those bills, but for the most part they're not being funded the way they should be. President Bush has actually vetoed billions of dollars for domestic defense, and he is refusing to release $1.5 billion that should go to police, firefighters, and first responders who face layoffs as I speak.

The president made a big show out of vetoing a $5 billion emergency bill, half of which was for domestic defense, while the rest included money to fight forest fires and essential aid for Israel. But $5 billion is about what it will cost for just one month if we fully eliminate the estate tax under the president's plan, mostly benefiting just 3,000 or so multi-millionaire families. How this administration can prefer tax cuts for the most fortunate 1 percent of Americans over domestic defense for 100 percent of Americans is beyond me, but they do.

Finally, I am troubled that this administration often seems most animated when it is curtailing basic freedoms for no good reason. They've claimed arbitrary power to arrest any American, label him an "enemy combatant," and then lock him up as long as they want, without a lawyer, without a chance to show he's innocent. They have allowed government agents to observe political meetings and prayer groups without real oversight. And they have another plan straight out of 1984, a "total information awareness" program that could collect and maintain detailed, personal files on every single American. These steps undercut our liberty without advancing our security and they are wrong.

In short, when it comes to homeland security, the administration has been expert at politics and erratic in practice. Instead, homeland security should be our unequivocal priority; our strategy must be comprehensive; and our approach must honor the way of life we are defending: faith and family, duty and service, individual freedoms and a common purpose to build one nation under God.

A comprehensive approach requires major new initiatives in four basic areas: finding and tracking terrorists, border security, target protection, and domestic readiness.

First and foremost, we need to dramatically improve our ability to identify the terrorists in America, to track them down, infiltrate their cells, learn their plans, and stop them cold.

The first thing we need to do on the information front is to create a new homeland intelligence agency, as I called for in October.

The agency at the center of domestic intelligence now is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI's mistakes before September 11th are now well known. Yet only recently, the FBI's number two official said he was "amazed and astounded" by the agency's continued sluggishness in fighting terror.

The FBI's intelligence failures are directly related to the nature and mission of the FBI. At its heart, the FBI is a law enforcement agency dedicated to arresting, prosecuting, and convicting people who break the law. FBI agents are very good at law enforcement, but law enforcement isn't intelligence. Intelligence is about collecting information, fitting it into a bigger picture, and sharing the information with people who can take action.

Asking a law enforcement agency to manage intelligence is like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. The FBI hires and promotes based on law enforcement criteria, it builds cases rather than connecting dots, and it keeps information secret rather than getting it to those who can use it to stop the terrorists.

The FBI has tried to reform for years, but the bureaucratic resistance is tremendous. Today we don't have the luxury of failing to turn the FBI into something it isn't meant to be. We need to create what we need.

The central goal of a new homeland intelligence agency should be uncovering terrorist threats before they cause harm. That effort will have three basic components: first, to gather information about terrorists, their activities, and their plans; second, to analyze data, search for patterns, and assess threats; and third, to get that information and analysis to the right people so we can stop terrorists before they harm us.

Because the focus will be intelligence, the new agency's officers don't even need arrest powers. Those responsibilities should remain with law enforcement. Trying to combine incompatible missions is the reason we have this problem in the first place. This agency's activities must be reconciled with legitimate concerns about our liberty and privacy. The creation of a new homeland intelligence agency will give us a fresh chance to strengthen our freedom as well as our security.

A recent study by a bipartisan commission at the Markle Foundation points the way. Strong guidelines should indicate what, when, and where investigations can occur. Particularly intrusive investigations should be held to special standards. Rigorous internal auditing, together with enhanced public reporting, should provide accountability. A special office for civil rights, headed by an independent director, should ensure the agency obeys the law. The task is stopping terrorists, not monitoring political dissent.

I first proposed a new intelligence agency two months ago. After initial signs of support, the administration has backed off under bureaucratic pressure. That's a huge mistake. Congress and the administration should get to work on the new agency in January. There's no time to waste.

A homeland intelligence agency is only the first step to track down terrorists. "When it comes to combating terrorism," the Hart-Rudman commission notes correctly, "the police officers on the beat are effectively operating deaf, dumb, and blind." There are only 11,500 FBI agents in America, but there are over 650,000 police and sheriffs on the front lines of domestic defense who don't get the respect, the access, or the tools they need to do their jobs. The FBI doesn't respect their street knowledge. It doesn't push urgent information to them, as police chiefs across the country have complained. And with computers decades old, the FBI doesn't provide a simple way for a police officer in North Carolina to find out if the guy he just pulled over for speeding is on a terrorist watch list.

Within the next year, we ought to be able to do two things. First, guarantee that relevant, detailed, and specific information about immediate threats gets to the local level. To make that easier, we should grant high-level security clearances to at least one top officer in police departments across the country so they can receive classified information. Second, we need to link all of the federal watch lists, as well as appropriate state and local databases, in a national terrorism information network that key local officials and entities like airlines can access at appropriate levels.

If we'd had a system like this to track terrorism suspects in August 2001, we could have been alerted when two of the September 11th hijackers bought tickets to fly on American Airlines Flight 77, which they helped to fly into the Pentagon. They both used their real names, and those names were on a State Department list of suspected terrorists. That's only the beginning. If the government had been alerted that these two suspected terrorists were buying plane tickets, it could have conducted a few more routine checks. When they checked for common addresses, they would have discovered three more terrorists, including Mohammed Atta. His phone number would have led to the discovery of five other hijackers.

Now, we certainly can't count on terrorists to use legitimate ID all the time. Seven of the 19 September 11th hijackers had fake driver's licenses. Six of them had fake Social Security cards. We need to make it much harder to get fraudulent identification by setting national standards for official IDs and helping states meet them. The standards should do two things: require states to obtain real proof of identity before issuing official ID, and require biometric identifiers like fingerprints so nobody can use someone else's ID.

The second major area of weakness in our domestic defense is our border. We need to significantly tighten our borders against dangerous people and dangerous things.

First, we need to do a far better job keeping terrorists out. Every single September 11th hijacker entered America legally. In fact, the system is so bad that notices renewing student visas for two of the terrorists were sent out six months after September 11. That is just unacceptable.

The basic principle that should govern immigration is simple: warm welcome for immigrants and visitors, exhaustive barriers against terrorists. Law-abiding immigrants build a richer, more vibrant America for all of us. We want a lot more legal immigration of people who are ready to work hard, follow the law, learn our language, and become Americans. But the only way we will ever be able to let more good people into our country legally will be if we do a vastly better job keeping the criminals and terrorists out. That means we need to take our border controls to a new level.

Today, the system is badly broken. At American consular offices, junior foreign service officers are swamped. They have far too many visa requests to thoroughly interview and investigate every applicant. The lookout databases don't work. People on State Department watch lists cross INS checkpoints. People in FBI criminal databases get visas from State. We have no idea if people who enter the country legally leave the country legally because we don't process basic forms. The entry-exit systems along our 6,000 miles of borders are overwhelmed. The list of problems goes on and on.

Let me say this to this administration: You've had ample time and ample warning. Fix this bureaucracy, because our security is at stake.

Here are some things we can do:

When you ask anybody with knowledge of the situation, "What's the most important thing we can do to improve security at our borders?" you invariably get the same answer: manpower. As experts here have suggested, we should increase the number of INS inspectors, Border Patrol agents, and State Department consular officials by at least 10,000. We should also triple the administration's budget for border control information technology, so new agents get the right information. And we should say that all legal aliens will have a standard legal document, not one of an array that baffle so many employers today.

Securing our borders against the human threat is critical – but if we don't secure them against the material threat as well, we won't really have secured them at all. There are 361 ports in America where millions of 40-ton containers are unloaded every year. One of those ports is in Wilmington, North Carolina, and I've seen these huge containers myself. A dirty bomb in just one could contaminate an entire city. Even a credible threat of such a bomb could sink the shipping industry — and the global economy — for weeks. The Customs commissioner said only a few months ago that "there is virtually no security" for transporting sea containers – not while they're loaded, not when they're sealed, and not when they're shipped to our shores.

Again, we must do better. In the short-run, as I proposed in port security legislation last September, we need to install and maintain sophisticated screening equipment. In the long-run, we need more inspections overseas as well, so we can discover dangerous material before it gets to America. We should offer a simple deal to shipping companies: If you take responsibility for improving your security, we'll make it easier for you to move through our ports. There's a new Customs partnership taking this approach, but if it's going to work, it needs more resources and a higher priority. Within the next 18 months, we ought to have a majority of the shipments to America in the secure shipping program.

The third critical domestic defense task is to harden potential terrorist targets to make them significantly less vulnerable to attack.

September 11th awakened us to the massive damage terrorists could cause with airplanes, and we've taken good measures to harden airline security. Unfortunately, we have a dangerous pattern of closing the barn door after the terrorists have attacked. It's time to get ahead of them. We know they want to cause the most death, destruction, economic disruption, and fear they can. And so while we can never predict just what terrorists will do, we have a pretty good sense about other likely targets. We need to harden those targets.

Start with nuclear safety. Today, nuclear waste shipments are highly vulnerable – we need better security for the routes and stronger casks for the shipments. The situation at nuclear plants is even more troubling. Before 9/11, plants were failing about half their security evaluations. Even now, guards have repeatedly reported that they don't have essential training and equipment, and they're understaffed and underpaid.

These are the very same issues we saw in airport security prior to 9/11. And we know how we met that problem, even if the administration wasn't crazy about it. We did it by putting well-trained, well-paid federal guards into airports. Airport security isn't perfect, but it's a whole lot better than before. Given the terrible cost of an attack on a nuclear plant or a theft from one, we need a federal security force for nuclear facilities, carefully trained and regularly tested through emergency simulations.

America's 12,000 chemical facilities also pose a dangerous threat. There are roughly 25,000 fires, spills or explosions involving hazardous materials every year. The Union Carbide chemical disaster in India killed at least 3,000 people -- and it was an accident. An attack could achieve horrifying results. 123 plants store toxic chemicals that could endanger a million people or more if they were released.

The Bush administration was actually moving towards a commonsense solution that would set minimum standards for safety at chemical plants -- internal EPA documents clearly indicate that administration officials consider this a grave threat. But dangerously true to form, after lobbying by the chemical industry, the administration abandoned that approach.

Once again, corporate special interests have trumped the interests of ordinary Americans -- in this case, with potentially devastating consequences. The administration and Congress should support three simple steps that Senator Corzine has been fighting for.

First, require much better physical security for plants, including more security guards and better background checks. Second, require companies to use less explosive chemicals whenever possible. Third, require improved security procedures for handling and storing chemicals. We also need a comprehensive effort to bring the decades-old law controlling toxic substances into the 21st century. This isn't rocket science, it's basic science and common sense.

There are 500 skyscrapers that usually have at least 5,000 people in them, and 250 major arenas and stadiums that can hold many times more. Unsecured and unfiltered ventilation systems provide a ready-for-use distribution system for airborne poisons. Old buildings lack fire retardants and blast-resistant materials that can save hundreds of lives in a disaster. And entrance security at major stadiums is often mediocre, as turnstile jumpers will tell you.

We need to speed up studies that will show us how to make skyscrapers safer, and the national labs should lead new R&D into improving blast- and fire-resistant designs. The administration should establish voluntary national standards for security and construction of the tallest buildings and largest arenas, including fire safety guidelines based on the advanced practices used in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. We should provide funds for states that put those standards in their building codes, and we should encourage terrorism insurers, especially after the reinsurance bill, to give owners breaks on premiums only when they make the right improvements.

We also have to address other types of transportation: trains, subways, and automobile traffic using bridges and tunnels. There are 25 million passengers per year on intercity trains, and every one of them knows how lax security on trains is today. Amtrak tunnels beneath New York, Baltimore, and Washington were built between 1872 and 1910, and their emergency exits and ventilation are almost as old. Subway tunnels can distribute deadly agents in minutes. One sarin gas attack in Tokyo left a dozen people dead; another plot recently foiled in the London Underground could have killed thousands more. We can't wait to act.

So far, the administration's primary approach has been to urge people to keep traveling— ride the trains, take the subway, drive to work. Of course, we should remain calm, but we also have to address the threats. We need to expand security at rail stations— as suggested by Senators Biden and Carper— including more security offers, better fencing and bomb detection equipment, and improved ventilation and evacuation systems. Washington D.C. is now installing chemical sensors for poisonous attacks in the subway; we need to help install that kind of protection in every major subway system. And we need to support efforts to harden the resistance of bridges and tunnels to fire and explosion.

We also need new measures to protect our food and water supplies, and improve our early warning system so we can minimize harm in case of an attack on either. The FDA and the USDA should move quickly to strengthen their current quality control efforts to guard against deliberate contamination of the food supply, and the EPA should step up their research on protecting drinking water, including the use of harmless disinfectants. Our reservoirs need more biological and chemical detectors as well.

We also need to improve computer network security. A determined cyber-terrorist could take down our phones and power grids; they could poison our water or paralyze our energy system. Both government and business need to make cybersecurity a higher priority. Today, government is busy issuing recommendations to businesses that are busy ignoring them. Part of the problem is that businesses adamantly and absolutely oppose regulation–-and they won't listen to a government that hasn't got its own house in order. That's fair, for now. The only agency that has eliminated its obvious vulnerabilities is NASA. Every other agency should follow its lead and shore up its virtual defenses in the next nine months.

The fourth major area we need to improve is domestic readiness so people on the front lines have the training and equipment to respond to any attack with speed, skill, and strength.

That work begins with first responders like police, firefighters, and EMTs. We wouldn't send our soldiers into battle without the best equipment in the world. Yet on the front lines of domestic defense, this administration is cutting aid to cops, states are laying them off, and they're not getting training and equipment they need.

If, God forbid, there is another attack, the 170,000 employees of the new department won't be the ones who come to the rescue. It will be the firefighters and police officers like the heroes of New York.

Senator Clinton has a good bill to make sure state and local governments get the best communications equipment, the best protective gear, and the best training. But even those won't help if no one is there to use them because cities out of money have put cops out of work. We should give states an additional $1.5 billion in one-time aid they can use to hire and retain 75,000 cops, firefighters, and EMTs.

The administration may think domestic defense is about changing the color code from yellow to orange. Let me tell you something: the colors that will make America safer are firefighter red, EMT white, and police officer blue.

We need to continue efforts to step up the public health system's ability to recognize and respond to biological attacks. We need a national system to ensure sufficient production and rapid distribution of existing treatments and preventive measures; the administration has a good plan in this area, and the smallpox vaccination plan makes some sense, but we need to be very careful about its implementation. But we must do more, especially to develop vaccines and drugs to counter emerging biological threats. The commercial market for those kinds of drugs is very limited. HHS and the FDA should encourage the development of new drugs, vaccines, and devices to address biological threats.

We also need to modernize an emergency warning system that is terribly out of date. The system depends on television and radio that most people won't hear in the middle of the night when an attack could come. The new color-coded scheme from the administration has proven more confusing than helpful to many Americans. The press, which is of course a critical first responder, hasn't been properly engaged. And private industry, which has led the Internet and cell phone revolution, plays virtually no role.

Public warnings save lives, so we have to make sure they get to every American. I plan to introduce legislation requiring the administration to work with the private sector and the media to get warnings to everyone in time of trouble. With a $10 million investment, we can get the job done in two years.

Finally, we need to encourage all Americans to play their part in making America safer. So many Americans want to contribute but feel like they haven't been asked. We should ask, and I've got four ideas about how.

First, there are many homeland security professions where we're seriously short on expertise, like public health and cyberdefense. We should draw bright young people into those professions by offering a simple deal: If you'll serve for five years, we'll pay for your college.

Second, we should give private companies every opportunity to contribute to domestic defense. Today government leaders haven't reached out to the private sector like they should. Businesses should be fully engaged in every state's homeland security commission, and they should have strong incentives to turn their ingenuity toward strengthening America's defenses.

Third, we ought to expand the portion of the National Guard focused on domestic defense, without undercutting the essential mission of military readiness. I propose inviting skilled men and women who fall beyond the regular age 35 cutoff for the Guard to join a civilian division dedicated to domestic security.

Finally, we should make sure all Americans can play a part in making America safer. Most of us are no more ready to respond to an attack today than we were on September 11th. We ought to change that— not by creating requirements from the top-down, but by empowering people from communities up.

Communities should provide training for everyone so they're ready if an attack comes. Some could encourage all adults to contribute a weekend each year to coordinating disaster relief. Every adult of every age can contribute. If a community is willing to ask readiness responsibility from every citizen, Washington should pay for it.

I believe we should do whatever it takes for domestic defense. At the same time, as I've said many times before, our economic security requires a deliberate return to fiscal discipline. In short, we should strengthen our domestic defense, and we should pay for the steps to do it. We can and must do both.

In the short-run, many of the investments I've proposed will not only improve our security; they will help jumpstart our economy and keep states from raising taxes. That is why I've talked about domestic defense before as a part of an immediate economic growth package.

In the long-run, I have outlined a number of measures that will get us back on the path to fiscal discipline. These include eliminating 10 percent of government employees outside national security, cutting wasteful spending, closing tax loopholes that undercut our economic security, and putting off tax cuts only for the most fortunate Americans. Together, these measures would save well over $1.6 trillion over 20 years. With only a tiny fraction of that amount, we can vastly improve our homeland security— and leave tremendous savings that will improve our economic security as well.

Strengthening our domestic defense is a challenge, but Americans have always risen to great challenges. There is no cause greater or nobler than protecting the country we love from the challenges we face. I believe we can do it, and we will do it if we are determined and if we work together. Thank you very much.