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This is an excerpt from an interview with Stephen E. Flynn, the Council on Foreign Relations’ top homeland security expert, in which CFR.org asked him to evaluate the general performance of the Department of Homeland Security. Flynn was interviewed by CFR.org’s Eben Kaplan, and the full interview also is available as a podcast.
D+. This is up from an F for about the first three years after 9/11. Certainly we have a framework now that we didn’t have before to begin to address the complexity of the problem, but we have such a long way to go that it doesn’t yet rate an average grade.
Nuclear Plant Security
B/B+. This is something where we started pretty strong vis-à-vis the threat, even before 9/11, because obviously everybody was concerned about the security dimensions in dealing with nuclear materials.
Grade: B. NORAD took a lot of heat after 9/11. Of course, just this month we had the incident of the small plane flying into an Upper East Side high rise in New York City, illustrating one of the big remaining gaps for NORAD, which is that anything below 1,500 feet is very difficult for the system to monitor. It’s not monitoring it in any airspace but in Washington, DC. That, though, is a small plane threat we’re dealing with. From the 9/11 standpoint, it’s really a jumbo jet [full of] fuel that turns it into a missile [that is a concern], versus a small plane, which is a bad day certainly for the pilot and the building, but doesn’t have the catastrophic consequences. There still remains a real challenge in our airspace if it’s a homegrown developed issue, though our ability to monitor what’s flying from outside the United States into U.S. soil has improved, and the ability for the Department of Defense under its northern command to muster fighter pilots and so forth to meet planes is quite good.
C+. Good news and bad news on passenger and baggage screening, certainly in the B or B+ range. But when it comes to air cargo, which goes in the underbody of the plane, there is still a major vulnerability in that the system used to target what little that gets inspected is still very problematic, and the tools and the resources available are still pretty slim. I put the air cargo side of it somewhere around a D+, giving us an overall aviation grade of C+.
Border Control and Immigration
C. Well, it is a hot topic for political reasons, but not one necessarily for security reasons. Borders are where we see the challenges of managing our interests that are affected by global challenges, whether it’s transportation or immigration and so forth, but [they are] almost always the worst place to manage these. We have to look beyond our borders often to deal with this. Overall, the relevance of our borders as a key component of homeland security—particularly walls and so forth—I put as extremely modest. They have something to do with immigration policy but they don’t have a lot to do with security.
Chemical Plant Security
D-/F. We just now have seen legislation as a part of an appropriations bill that for the first time gives the secretary of homeland security, five years after 9/11, the means to check the security plans at chemical facilities around our country. He has very limited authority to do much about the quality of the security that’s there. The total allocation for this is $10 million for the department to build a capacity to police what has been recognized as about 15,000 facilities that have the means to injure or threaten the lives of up to 100,000 people around them. This is totally unsatisfactory in light of the threat that some very deadly chemicals can pose.
C-. Well certainly Hurricane Katrina illustrated that we have a very long ways to go to getting the federal act together. The Department of Homeland Security has got religion, as a result of the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina over a year ago, to begin to have a more “all-hazards” focus versus a myopic terrorism focus. But what’s still a real struggle here is the role the Department of Defense will play in these large-scale events. At the end of the day, it turns out that most of the real assets you would have to [rally] for a disaster that would overwhelm a state and locality are going to come from the Pentagon, and here we still have a very passive role on the Pentagon’s part. The Department of Homeland Security has limited assets they can muscle together. I think Americans would be amazed to know the total size of FEMA is only 2,600 people, and the number of people, for instance, they assign to the southeastern region of the United States, which extends from the Carolinas all the way through Florida to Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky is 115 people.
Bridges, Tunnels, and Other Infrastructure
C. When we get to bridges and tunnels specifically, the good news is that civil engineers all want to be immortal and so they tend to overengineer things. Thank God for this because our bridges are aging, and not necessarily gracefully. They are getting more frail. Though it is challenging to blow up bridges and it is difficult to blow up tunnels, the means of doing so are problematic. But there is still a lot that could be done on surveillance. What we should be thinking about overall, though, is how to make these structures most resilient even if there weren’t terrorists, and there we can make a lot more investment.
D. This is probably one of weakest areas that the department has been struggling most with. What you have on one hand is an issue of trying to keep Americans engaged and alert since there has not been another terrorist attack since 9/11, and on the other hand being able to provide tangible guidance so people can respond to this threat. And the department has sort of oscillated back and forth between generating fear, as in raising alert systems, and efforts which are largely flawed, like ready.gov turned out to be, giving recommendations about how to secure yourself that most people didn’t act on or didn’t think were very credible. It needs help, Madison-Avenue-type help, and again needs to draw from civil society to get this message out. The best direction I think the department is going in, and I commend this, is the “all-hazards” approach. Virtually everything you would do to deal with the aftermath of a terrorist incident is what you’re going to have deal with if you had a major hurricane, or earthquake, or major snowstorm, and by building that capacity it will translate into more capability to deal with the terrorist incidents as well.