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Commentary

Homeland security is always political, so deal with it


Lewis J. Perelman, The Examiner
2007-08-09

WASHINGTON -
Many politicians and pundits proclaim that the cure for the foibles and fiascoes that have
made "homeland security" the butt of late- night comedians is to "get politics out" of
homeland security policy decisions.

But this argument—repeated by the Examiner's July 26 editorial—rests on several popular


myths that hinder efforts to make America safer.

"Political jockeying" should be removed from homeland security. When the focus of national
security shifted from "over there" to "over here," it necessarily stepped on the turf and toes
of domestic politics.

Politicking may be tolerable "when pork is being doled out," said the Examiner, "but not
when mass casualties could result." But nearly all government policies risk casualties.
Falling bridges, crumbling levees, and medical errors cause preventable deaths. Even
declaring a national holiday increases highway casualties.

Risks can be assessed "objectively." The announcement of federal anti- terrorism grants in
July 2006 spawned howls of indignation over cuts in funding for New York and Washington.
A federal decision allowing an Arab government to purchase six U.S. port facilities ignited a
firestorm of protest.

Narrow objectivity actually causes such blunders. Government technocrats' sterile


calculations ignore what every insurance or stock broker knows: What risks are acceptable
inevitably depends on human feelings.

The government can list which infrastructure is critical. For 10 years, the feds have tried
and failed to do this impossible task. Astronomical complexity of intricate, global supply
chains thwarts attempts to know which components are truly "critical."

A 1993 fire in a single Japanese chemical factory spawned an acute global shortage of
computer chips. The factory made 60 percent of the world supply of special epoxy needed
to bond chips to their packages. Who knew Japanese glue was critical to us?

One untrimmed tree in Ohio took out the entire Northeast power grid three years ago—
which of the billions of trees in the U.S. is critical?

Local or state or federal agencies are to blame for inadequate "interoperable"


communication systems, or response plans, infrastructure protection, etc. When national
security reentered the "homeland," it ran into the designed messiness of the constitutional
system that distributes authorities across three levels of government and between public
and private entities.

Much homeland security wrangling stems from ambivalent federal attempts to centralize
control in Washington while imposing "unfunded mandates" (leveraged by ever-inadequate
grant moneys) on state, local, and private actors to pay the costs of public safety.
Meanwhile, the latter cherish autonomy but have become addicted to subsidies.

Unable to protect everything 24/7, the federal government should cherry-pick what's worth
protecting. The feds can't protect everything. But neither can they pick what's "critical."
(After the Murrah Building and Pentagon attacks, even protecting themselves isn't assured).

Rather, independent authorities—including two federal advisory committees, authors


Stephen Flynn and Charles Perrow, The Infrastructure Security Partnership, and the
Business Roundtable—are now calling for a basic shift in strategy to focus on increasing
national resilience.

That means renovating all national infrastructure to increase our ability, in Timex-speak, to
"take a licking and keep on ticking." And they call for engaging all levels of government—
from the bottom up, not top down—with the private sector and citizenry to shrink the
vulnerability of the nation as a whole to "all hazards" not just terror attack.

Flawed homeland security stems not from general political influence but from particular
political errors—especially, not too much but too little public engagement in national
security.

As historian Richard Beeman observes, democratic republics are "absolutely dependent


upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health."

Lewis J. Perelman has been a fellow of the Homeland Security Institute and a senior fellow
of the Homeland Security Policy Institute.

Examiner