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“Homeland Security” was an idea largely conceived and implemented by the Republican Party. But at the opening night of the Republican convention in Cleveland, built around the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” it was depressingly clear that the GOP has forgotten everything that it learned during the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That memory loss could have serious and damaging consequences for the United States.
The blueprint for what became the American approach to homeland security was written by then Coast Guard commandant Admiral James Loy, who went on to become the first deputy secretary of homeland security in the Republican administration of George W. Bush. He authored a 1998 article, three years before the 9/11 attacks, called “Meeting the Homeland Security Challenge: A Principled Strategy for a Balanced and Practical Response.” In that article, Admiral Loy wrote that the growing terrorist threat required a sophisticated risk management approach to identify pressing threats and implement measured responses that would reduce the threat while preserving core American values such as civil liberties and openness to trade and immigration.
He warned of the grave danger of over-reaction:
“Security measures, if carried too far, pose risks that may equal or even exceed those of
terrorists and ill-intentioned foreign governments. Extreme restrictions on personal
liberties would instill resentments against government and ultimately weaken the
government’s ability to protect the populace. In fact, such over-reactions have sometimes
been the result desired by terrorists. Similarly, badly designed border controls could
endanger international trade and the American economy.”
Loy was among the leaders of an impressive group of Republican policymakers that tried after 9/11 to design and implement an approach to homeland security that recognized these complexities. They included such outstanding public servants as former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge and career prosecutor Michael Chertoff, the first two secretaries of homeland security. While they would be the first to admit that mistakes were made at times, what they and their Republican associates created was a far more sophisticated system of information gathering, border security measures, international cooperation and improved resilience that made the United States much safer from large-scale terrorist attacks than it had been before 9/11.
But neither Ridge nor Chertoff was on the stage in Cleveland Monday night. Instead we saw former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani shouting about “Islamic extremist terrorism” without offering a single policy suggestion for how to tackle the problem other than committing the United States to “unconditional victory” over its enemies and to “securing our borders.” He would have done well to read Admiral Loy before mouthing such meaningless platitudes.
Quieter, though more disturbing, was the presentation by Texas congressman Michael McCaul, who as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee is one of the country’s senior political leaders on the issue. Yet the best he could offer was that “we need to end sanctuary cities, keep dangerous people out of the country, and secure our borders once and for all.” (To which the delegates responded enthusiastically with chants of “Build the Wall.”) He repeated the growing GOP silliness that all the United States needs to do is “cut through the suffocating political correctness and call the threat what it really is – the enemy is radical Islam.”
McCaul knows better. In a sophisticated, bipartisan brief produced by the committee staff in September 2015, McCaul and his colleagues quite properly warned that the terrorist threat had morphed into a different challenge than was present during the Bush administration. In the place of al Qaeda, which sought to carry out large attacks on symbolic targets, the Islamic State has either organized or inspired smaller attacks on random groups of defenseless civilians. The report called for such sensible and overdue measures as an updated U.S. strategy to block terrorist travel, a global database of foreign fighters, early intervention to target those who might be radicalized, and improved information-sharing with foreign allies. It even made important nods to civil liberties, such as calling for better balancing of “due process and national security concerns” for those targeted on “no-fly” lists. Nowhere in the document is there any suggestion that ending "sanctuary cities" or building Donald Trump’s border wall would do anything to make Americans safer. And nowhere in the document does the phrase “radical Islam” appear.
The Republicans' abdication of their own intellectual heritage on homeland security has consequences far beyond the party. While there are some fine Democratic homeland security leaders – including the current secretary of homeland security Jeh Johnson – many Democratic politicians and interest groups remain far more concerned about the negative impacts of homeland security on civil liberties or immigration than they are about the security challenges.
Responsible Republican leadership is vital if the United States is going to develop the sophisticated strategies needed to identify, target and thwart terrorist plots, of which there will surely be many more in the coming years. But the Republican Party has abandoned any pretense that it can develop or offer real solutions to hard problems. The result – regardless of the outcome in November -- will be a weaker, more vulnerable United States.