The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001 placed homeland security at the top of the government's priority list. Since then, the President and Congress have done much to meet the daunting challenges facing the nation, which include a bold proposal to create a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security (DHS), increasing security at the borders, and enhancing cooperation and communication with state and local governments and civic institutions.
Several key policy areas that have not received enough attention since the attacks are more important today in light of the proposal to create a new federal department for homeland security. Specifically, to remedy remaining vulnerabilities and further strengthen homeland security this year, the Administration and Congress should:
- Create a better federal fusion system for intelligence. Such a center should gather, analyze, and share information as needed to appropriate agencies at the federal, state, and local levels. It should work closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which should remain independent of the new department since their broad missions extend beyond counterterrorism.
- Consolidate first responder programs and develop a national training network for state and local first responders. The President's First Responder Initiative is a good first step in improving federal efforts to prepare the nation's first responders for terrorist incidents. More should be done, such as developing a national system of hands-on educational facilities that consolidate federal assistance programs in their region and function as a "one-stop shop" for training, information on federal grants, and distance learning programs.
- Develop a comprehensive program of terrorism response exercises. Exercises that simulate WMD (weapons of mass destruction) events are central to preparing for terrorist strikes. Such exercises should be included in a national strategy for first responders developed by a task force, under the auspices of the new DHS, with representatives from the Office of Homeland Security (OHS), the Department of Defense, state and National Guard units, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other agencies.
- Expedite the development of a national health surveillance network. Since September 11, concerns about the ability of terrorists to harm large numbers of civilians with chemical, biological, or radiological (CBRN) agents have focused public attention on the lack of local preparedness in this area. To mobilize a rapid response to such attacks, officials must be able to recognize early outbreaks of catastrophic illnesses or attacks on food and water supplies. A nationwide network of local surveillance systems must be established to monitor and rapidly disseminate information about such occurrences across all levels of government.
- Develop a specific policy for smallpox vaccinations. The U.S. will soon have more than enough smallpox vaccine to protect every American. Determining whether each should be vaccinated is the next step. A recent University of Michigan study estimates that such a campaign could result in up to 300 deaths and thousands of illnesses. But it could also save millions of lives should a terrorist attack occur in high-density areas. The Administration should develop an effective vaccination program against smallpox, beginning with first responders and members of the public health community.
- Expand the role of the National Guard. As a first responder in domestic emergencies, the Guard is well-positioned to assume the lead military role in homeland security. Moreover, much of the administrative and command infrastructure that is needed to enable the Guard to take on such a role is in place. But Title 32, Section 102 of the U.S. Code forces the Guard to focus on providing support services to active forces, and the Pentagon cannot easily extract it from these duties and redeploy units for homeland security without affecting those active forces. Either the active forces' roster will have to expand to cover those services, or their commitments decrease. Steps must also be taken to redefine the Guard's mission.
- Establish a federal team to facilitate state and local strategies that complement the national homeland security strategy. Homeland security transcends all levels of government and depends on the willing cooperation of all involved. Helping state and local officials make their counterterrorism plans compatible with the federal strategy will be vital to its success and require close coordination between the new DHS and state and local government officials. OHS Director Tom Ridge should establish a team of staff members who can travel around the country to help local homeland security officials develop and implement plans that complement the national strategy.
- Establish standing committees on homeland security in both houses of Congress. Today, homeland security and terrorism-related programs traverse congressional committee jurisdictions. The House alone has at least 14 full committees and 25 subcommittees that claim jurisdiction over aspects of the programs. To complement the creation of a DHS and facilitate Congress's legislative and budgetary role in homeland security, each house should form a standing committee on homeland security with sole jurisdiction for the functions assumed by DHS. Subcommittees should be established to address the departmental divisions proposed by the President: border and transportation security, emergency preparedness and response, CBRN countermeasures, and intelligence analysis and infrastructure protection.
In light of the President's proposal for a new Department of Homeland Security, it is more important than ever that Washington make the right decisions in a timely manner. In this time of war, it is essential that the focus remain on national security and not be distorted by political manipulation and agency workplace fears. Though Washington has done much to increase security, it is time to take these next very important steps.
Michael Scardaville is Policy Analyst for Homeland Defense and Jack Spencer is Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.