The presidential candidates have discussed quite a few issues in
this campaign. Strangely, though, voters have heard little about
Yet the risks to America's hometowns are as high as they've ever
been, if not higher. The terrorists are still out to get us. Al
Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the border regions of Pakistan
and Afghanistan, and redoubled its effort to inspire
"self-radicalization" worldwide. We see glimpses of its recent
success with new or thwarted attacks in Germany, Britain, Turkey,
Saudi Arabia, and yes, even in the United States, where authorities
foiled attempts last year to blow up the JFK Airport fuel line, and
to attack the military base in Fort Dix, N.J.
Nor have natural disasters diminished. Indeed, the number of
declared disasters rises every year. There's no telling what might
happen on the next president's watch. Will California experience
the "big" earthquake? Will a Category 5 storm hit Manhattan? Will
some virus change its genetic makeup and become a global
As Hurricane Gustav headed for shore, John McCain and Barack
Obama emphasized the importance of presidential leadership.
Unfortunately, those sound bites and photo ops told us little of
what they might actually do as president. We need to know.
Is a post-Katrina FEMA on the right track? Should we welcome
foreign visitors or place tighter controls at the border to protect
America from terrorist threats? Should we build border fences or
invest in tougher immigration enforcement? Should government
regulate private-sector security to ensure critical infrastructure
is protected, or encourage voluntary public-private partnerships?
How should we fund continued investments and operational costs of
our local first responders?
The list goes on. The Patriot Act, for example, is up for
renewal next year -- should it be reauthorized? Foreign ownership
of critical infrastructure will continue to be a question: After
the Dubai Ports debacle, politicians aligned against foreign
ownership, despite the fact that it could have enhanced our
security. Now airlines plagued with financial problems are looking
for foreign investment to stay afloat -- where does the next
president stand on this? And should we scan all cargo coming into
America for radiological or nuclear bombs?
Too often, discussions on homeland security end up singling out
the Department of Homeland Security as the problem, the challenge
and the solution. The next administration must recognize, however,
that the department is only one part of a much larger homeland
security system -- or it should be. The most urgent task is not to
move about pieces in the department, but to establish a truly
national homeland security enterprise that integrates all
elements of society to protect America against catastrophic
Although the Department of Homeland Security's budget accounts
for about half of all federal domestic security expenditures, the
homeland security budgets of the Departments of Defense, Health and
Human Services, Justice, Energy and State are also significant. And
virtually every agency has some responsibility for homeland
The real strength and the front lines of prevention, protection,
response and recovery, though, are at the state and local levels.
They're with the emergency responders and the firms that operate
private infrastructure, as well as with families and communities
and their ability to handle disasters.
The terrorist threat is nimble and dynamic. It exploits the
seams of our society, operating in the gaps between bureaucratic
notions of foreign and domestic, state and federal, civil and
military, public and private. We must weave a national homeland
security enterprise as agile and seamless as those who seek to harm
Voters need to know what the candidates propose to build such an
enterprise -- one that not only thwarts terrorists, but respects
constitutional liberties and promotes economic competitiveness.
Here are several recommendations McCain and Obama would do well to
- Foster a culture of preparedness by focusing on making
communities and individuals more self-reliant and less dependent on
- Shift from a strategy that tries to "child-proof" critical
infrastructure to one that builds and sustains an infrastructure
that can take a hit and keep going.
- Expand international cooperation, since real homeland security
begins far from home.
- Develop a clear framework for domestic intelligence, one that
safeguards liberty and defeats terrorists equally well.
- Improve professional development in security and public safety
at all levels of government -- ensuring that leaders really can
As we remember those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, let's continue to
do all we can to make America more secure against all threats,
natural and man-made. That effort will continue with new
presidential leadership in January. It's time for the candidates
talk about it.
David Heyman is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic
and International Studies (csis.org). James Jay Carafano is a
senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage