America Isn't Prepared for Another Big Disaster

COMMENTARY Homeland Security

America Isn't Prepared for Another Big Disaster

Oct 3, 2010 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

"Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers."

So concluded the Hart-Rudman Commission in a report issued Sept. 15, 1999 -- two years before the 9/11 attacks.

The commission also predicted that "all borders will be more porous; some will bend and some will break." Given conditions on the U.S.-Mexican border today and the deepening cycle of cross-border violence fueled by transnational criminal cartels, that finding seems mighty prophetic as well.

But the Hart-Rudman Commission didn't just forecast these future threats. It also argued that the nation should prepare to deal with them. One recommendation called for establishing a single federal agency "with responsibility for planning, coordinating, and integrating various government activities involved in homeland security."

The commission also declared that the Department of Defense ought to be prepared to play a role in responding to the massive destruction that might be caused by nuclear and biological attacks.

Not much attention was paid to this "chicken-little" report. But that started to change when planes began crashing into buildings, anthrax arrived in the mail, and a British air traveler tried to set his shoes on fire.

On Sept. 15 of this year, another commission released a report. The Abbot-Keating Commission -- headed by Steve Abbot, former White House homeland security adviser, and Frank Keating, Oklahoma's governor at the time of the 1995 Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City -- was chartered by Congress to assess the Pentagon's capacity to respond in truly catastrophic disasters.

Their conclusions are reported in "Before Disaster Strikes: Imperatives for Enhancing Defense Support of Civil Authorities." That subtitle pretty much says it all. The armed forces are not ready.

Some of the report's findings are simply stunning. For example, despite nine years of post-9/11 ramping up, "there is currently no comprehensive national integrated planning system to respond to either natural or man-made disasters."

To make matters worse, federal, state, and local agencies are not even sharing what they are doing now. They are not, the report admonished, "making a sustained and comprehensive effort to share all-hazards response plans."

Abbot and Keating argue that catastrophic disasters are in a league of their own. If the military is not trained, resourced, equipped, and practiced at working with other federal, state, and local assets, Americans will be at grave risk.

The commission detailed almost 50 proposals on how to make things better. The issue is: Will Washington act now, or will it wait for another ground zero?

Doubtless the Pentagon will not welcome the suggestion that it needs to do more to defend the homeland.

Last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates directed that the services cut the number of troops specifically dedicated and trained to respond to chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological attacks. Furthermore, in the past few months the secretary has been focused on how to cut Pentagon spending -- not how to add missions.

It makes no sense to force Americans to choose between security and a fiscally responsible government in Washington. When Dwight Eisenhower was president, defense spending was still half the federal budget. Today it constitutes less than one-fifth.

It is not that it costs less to provide for the common defense today, it's that Washington keeps writing bigger and bigger checks for virtually everything else, far outpacing growth in national security spending.

Washington should give the Pentagon the resources needed to get homeland defense done right -- not at the expense of other military missions, but by getting the government's fiscal house in order.

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

First appeared in The Examiner