September 19, 2010

September 19, 2010 | Commentary on Terrorism

Small Towns Get 9/11 More than Big Cities

About 150 people gathered at the Barnstable, Mass., fire station for this year's Sept. 11 remembrance.

The local scout troop presented two flags; the "Flag of Honor" bearing the names of those killed in the attacks, and the "Flag of Heroes," listing the firemen and policemen who died trying to save them.

"We will never forget where we were and what we were doing at 9 o'clock in the morning on that fateful day," declared retired West Barnstable Fire Chief John Jenkins.

Similar scenes played out across the country throughout the day -- classic, all-American moments.

But such small-town doings contrasted sharply with how Washington and the major media treated the ninth anniversary of the nation's worse terrorist attacks. Among the sophisticated set, all the talk was of Koran burnings and Big Apple mosques. Homeland security hardly rated a mention.

That's unfortunate. A lot has happened, and Washington should take stock of where we are in the effort to avoid another 9/11.

During the last nine years, there have been at least 32 failed plots to terrorize the homeland. Three failed because we got lucky. Only their ineptness prevented the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, and the Times Square bomber from killing hundreds.

These near misses -- two within the last year -- are cause for concern. The plots should have been uncovered and stopped before any fuse could be lit.

Still, there is good news. The other 29 disrupted plots indicate that federal, state, and local officials have knitted together a network able to stop attacks before they get to D-Day. Tools like the Patriot Act have worked. President Obama was wise to not try to roll back that law.

The Department of Homeland Security continues to make strides as well. Compared with the pre-Katrina era, the Federal Emergency Management Agency in DHS today is a much better organization with much stronger leadership.

The Coast Guard remains a remarkably effective and dedicated service. And other parts of DHS, like the Science and Technology Directorate (was regarded as little more than a taxpayer's sinkhole for science experiments), are run with far more forethought and professionalism.

Arguably, only in the highly politicized and White House-directed approach to immigration is the department on really shaky ground.

In other respects, though, our homeland security does not look so good. In fact, things look worse than they did on 9/11.

The No. 1 recommendation of the 9/11 Commission was to consolidate congressional oversight of homeland security. Oversight has actually deteriorated since the commission issued its report. Today, upward of 100 congressional committees, subcommittees, and other panels claim jurisdiction over DHS operations.

The "too many chefs" situation creates problems. On one hand, lots of "pet" programs of the various chairmen remain in effect, even when shown to be woefully inefficient and downright wasteful.

A case in point is the mandate requiring that 100 percent of all U.S.-bound shipping containers be scanned. On the other hand, the proliferation of overseers makes it easier for problems to slip through the cracks. For example, nothing's happening on Real ID, the law that requires state driver's licenses to meet national security standards.

Meanwhile, the White House has continued a disturbing trend of making homeland security too Washington-centric. The number of federally declared disasters continues to escalate, and D.C. still ladles out massive homeland security grants. This approach only encourages states to scale back their own efforts and rely increasingly on the feds.

There are both problems and progress in the nation's efforts to improve homeland security. We would better honor the victims and heroes of 9/11 by focusing on these issues rather than on publicity-hungry pastors and imams.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Washington Examiner