The terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks took advantage of vulnerabilities in a critical part of America's infrastructure—our air transportation system. Experts have pointed to similar vulnerabilities in our nation's food supply, our ports, and our chemical and nuclear facilities. Congress and the Bush administration responded to the threat of other such attacks by creating the Department of Homeland Security. But has the government done enough? What more should we be doing to defend against potentially devastating domestic terrorist attacks? And just how much can we do without infringing on our freedom and way of life? Peter Robinson speaks with Frances Edwards and Stephen Flynn.
Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: Land of the free and home of the vulnerable...
Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.
Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: homeland security--is the government doing enough to keep the nation safe? The terrorists behind the 9/11 attack exploited one particular vulnerability in the nation's infrastructure: our air transportation system. Today, experts point to possible other vulnerabilities in other aspects of our infrastructure: our food supply, our ports, the chemical industry, nuclear facilities. More than three years after 9/11, has the government secured these aspects of our infrastructure? And if it hasn't, why on earth hasn't it?
Joining us today, two guests. Frances Edwards is director of the Office of Emergency Services in San Jose, California. Stephen Flynn is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of America the Vulnerable.
Title: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Peter Robinson: Former Governor of New Jersey, Thomas Kean, Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, "Every expert with whom we spoke told us an attack of even greater magnitude than that of 9/11 is now possible and even probable." An enormous terrorist attack on the United States within let's say three to five years. Is probable the word that you would use for that, Franny?
Frances Edwards: Yes.
Peter Robinson: It is. Steve?
Stephen Flynn: Yes.
Peter Robinson: Well let's spend the rest of the show trying to make me feel better about things then. Daniel Byman of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy wrote an article recently, which he called, "We're Safer," safer, "Than You Think." Let me give the two of you his fundamental analysis and then have you comment on it, the two of you having just said that we're not safe at all. The blows against Al Qaeda, he argues, the biggest blows have been the removal of Afghanistan as a haven and the elimination of Europe and Asia as tolerant environments. The Europeans and Asians are aware of these people now and trying to monitor them and harass them and disrupt their activities. Now let me quote Byman directly. "As former CIA Director, George Tenet testified, successive blows to Al Qaeda's central leadership have transformed the organization into a loose collection of regional networks that operate more autonomously." He's quoting Tenet. That's the end of that quotation. Now this is Byman himself. "This shift from a centralized structure to a more localized one has made the United States homeland safer. The vast sea of disaffected young Muslim men that is present in Europe and elsewhere has no American parallel." You buy that?
Frances Edwards: No.
Peter Robinson: You don't buy it at all?
Frances Edwards: I agree with some of what he's said but to say that we don't have an American parallel I think is unfair. If you look at the intelligence that's been collected by American law enforcement, we recognize that we do in fact have people in the United States who are here perhaps for legitimate reasons but have become disaffected or may actually be sleepers. And right here in Santa Clara County, we have targets of concern, persons of interest that we track.
Peter Robinson: Do you have any idea how many people of interest there might be in the country?
Frances Edwards: I don't but the intelligence community…
Peter Robinson: FBI, somebody knows. Do you have any idea?
Stephen Flynn: No, in fact, we don't know very well.
Peter Robinson: We don't.
Stephen Flynn: What we do know is that…
Peter Robinson: Do you buy his fundamental analysis?
Stephen Flynn: No. I mean, yes some progress with the disruption of Al Qaeda but I think a more fundamental argument--I argue that what we saw on 9/11 quite simply is how warfare will be conducted against the United States in the 21st century. That is every current and future adversary of the United States will make catastrophic terrorism the weapon of choice. That is, catastrophic terrorism directed at the non-military elements of our power in civil society and the critical infrastructure that underpins our power. And I make that case on two basic I think observations as a student of military history. The first is we will spend more this year on conventional military capability than the next 30 nations combined.
Peter Robinson: Right. Nobody can beat us…
Stephen Flynn: Now that means there's only two possibilities for the future of warfare. You take the stuff on which is foolish or you look for a vulnerability. And the vulnerability turns out to be that our power is based on critical networks of transportation logistics and information and finance and energy and intellectual capital. That is insecure.
Peter Robinson: I want to come to all of that of course. But I want to push you a little bit on this Byman thesis because what he's saying here is that the work we've done overseas in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, presumably a good portion of this is secret--who knows quite all what's going on--but there's a reason we haven't suffered a terrorist attack during these three and some more years and it's because by attacking them overseas, we've made it much harder for them to engage in planning and so forth that's necessary to produce a big attack here in this country. And that's an important point because if that's true, then it suggests that whereas defense is important, lord knows it's important and Byman wouldn't suggest otherwise, offense is critical.
Stephen Flynn: This is my critique on this here. One is we have Madrid which was a basically homegrown activity on March 2004, four simultaneous attacks within a first world society that had a pretty good track record of dealing with terror as an ongoing issue. We had other case four days after that. One is an issue, as a former coast guard officer, the issue of maritime and container security. Four days after, poorly reported, was a case of Palestinian suicide bombers who hid in a container with a hidden wall in it…
Peter Robinson: When you say container, you're talking about these big almost the size of tractor-trailers that we see coming into the Port of San Francisco, Port of Oakland--that kind of…
Stephen Flynn: That's right. These 40 foot by 8 foot by 8 foot boxes that like Lego blocks move from a train to a truck to a ship. Okay.
Peter Robinson: Right. Gotcha.
Stephen Flynn: They get in one of these going to the Port of Ashdod in Israel and they opened it up. They saw just a wall so they closed it. These guys burst out when they got on the terminal, ran for the tank farms to blow it up. Now they were intercepted by Israelis, they blew themselves up and killed eight Israelis at the same time. They didn't get their target but this was different. This wasn't a café. This wasn't a wedding. This wasn't a commuter bus. This is the use of the transportation system as a means of terror in targeting infrastructure.
Peter Robinson: We'll turn in a moment to the question of responding to terrorist attacks but first the matter of protecting ourselves against them.
Title: Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Peter Robinson: Steve Flynn in his book America the Vulnerable, I quote him to himself. "With the exception of airports, much that is critical to our way of life remains unprotected." Now I'd like to just run down, as a layman, pieces of the American infrastructure and have the two of you professionals comment on them. In the first place you say with the exception of airports, what are we doing right about airports?
Stephen Flynn: On the specific scenario, what was confronted on 9/11 which is people getting people aboard with box cutters in hostage planes, we fixed that probably actually by locking the cockpit door and changing the behavior of passengers, the expectations of passengers.
Peter Robinson: Okay. So what we're doing right with airports is that what happened on 9/11 isn't going to happen again?
Stephen Flynn: Well…
Frances Edwards: Not exactly the way it happened on 9/11.
Stephen Flynn: Right. But now what's limited even there though is of course we sit on the top deck of the plane. The bottom decks of most passenger planes, about 60% of them carry air cargo. And the only thing that airlines do with air cargo is weigh it. They don't inspect it. There are a hundred total inspectors in the United States, Federal Transportation Security Administration dedicated to looking at air cargo security versus the 40,000 that check passengers. Now the problem, it illustrates a broad issue which is that we're not thinking systemically about this issue…
Peter Robinson: Okay. Let me take down through--food supply. Are you happy with the American food supply?
Frances Edwards: You know, our food supply is kind of a cradle to table problem. So from the moment that it's planted, we know that people could bring a crop duster and spray something inimical on the material as it was growing. It can be interfered with in shipment. It can be interfered with in the grocery stores. It can be interfered with in the distribution center. But we have a challenge because we want to remain an open society and we want to maintain a society where we have free trade. So as long as that's one of our goals, then we have to constantly balance what kind of additional costs are we going to…
Peter Robinson: Absolute--right.
Frances Edwards: …place on the food. And what kind of interference with the distribution patterns are we going to tolerate.
Peter Robinson: You write a lot in your book about the chemical industry.
Stephen Flynn: Right.
Peter Robinson: Tell me what you're frightened about there.
Stephen Flynn: Well, where I'm frightened is we have about 15,000 chemical facilities in this country and many of them deal with the most deadly stuff we've ever devised on the planet because they have commercial applications, industrial applications. And yet today, we don't have any effort at the federal level to investigate whether there's adequate security at these industries because we haven't agreed on what those standards are and there is, in fact, no federal review process of this. This legislation still…
Peter Robinson: Well now is there no incentive for the commercial enterprises themselves to make sure they have very good security?
Stephen Flynn: It turns out--I argue that there's not. This is one of the myths I think, is that there's sufficient market incentives for the private sector to protect itself.
Peter Robinson: What about tort laws? Say somebody has a big above-ground facility that holds a lot of some horrible acid and there's used in a terrorist attack. Can people sue them for inadequate protection?
Stephen Flynn: It's potential but I think most companies would probably just make the calculus that they're out of business anyways. So what you have though is a classic tragedy of the commons problem or free rider issue. No single entity whether the chemical industry or the transportation or the food industry owns the whole infrastructure. Security has baseline costs. If they do it themselves, voluntarily raise the bar, then a couple of things happen. One is their profit's obviously affected because they're raising costs that the competitors are not. The bad guys go to the weak point. Because it's critical, it's all interconnected, it gets shut down when the government responds. And then Congress weighs in afterwards and comes up with nifty ideas how to fix it that may look nothing like their initial investment. All that means is that in three years--we have the data on this now--three years we've seen virtually no investment by the private sector in protecting the most critical elements of our power.
Peter Robinson: Stephen says that private industry is doing almost nothing to protect us. What exactly does he want the government to do instead?
Title: Make a Federal Case Out of It
Peter Robinson: Your answer to that is to involve the federal government in what way to create--for example, let's take the chemical industry. You said we have 15,000 installations and what do you want to do? Create a big new federal police force or do you want to have Congress mandate that certain materials must be handled in certain ways--in other words, there are all kinds of levels of…
Stephen Flynn: What I really want is a really effective…
Peter Robinson: Or you could presumably even tweak the tort law to make it very clear to people in the marketplace that they've got to spend more on--and let the marketplace, so to speak, handle the problem.
Stephen Flynn: Yeah. It's really a mixture in part. But really it's a real private/public partnership, which is what we don't have today. See the challenge we have is a private sector who owns 85-plus percent of this infrastructure actually knows its vulnerabilities better than anybody in the USA.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Stephen Flynn: …which is no expertise. But the private sector because of this tragedy of the commerce problems can't impose this across an industry itself because they're competing with one another. So what you need is the private sector come in and say these are the standards we all can agree upon but they have to become standards. We can find mechanisms where there's tort law or insurance to logically enforce this but there will ultimately have to be a public role.
Peter Robinson: That sounds good to you?
Stephen Flynn: The public government…
Peter Robinson: Is that a good model for food supply because look, this line of argument creeps very easily or let's put it this way, it lends itself into a vast expansion of federal authority, regulatory authority. So how do you address that problem in this layman's mind? Say if I'm thinking it, a lot of people are worried about it.
Frances Edwards: I think when you're looking at a cost benefit issue and we need a really good threat analysis and that's what we've been trying to do at the local government level over the last several years.
Peter Robinson: How do you in San Jose analyze your threat? How on earth can you measure the likelihoods, the probabilities? How do you do it?
Frances Edwards: Well fortunately, I don't have to. Our police intel officers do that but they do it based on the likelihood of an event occurring, the numbers of people that are likely to be willing to perpetrate the event that would have something to gain from it, the cost of somebody doing a certain type of action. And then we try to look at those things that are first of all most likely to occur and second of all, would have the largest negative impact on our community and focus our efforts in that direction.
Peter Robinson: Okay. So she has just armed me to come back at you with a slightly different--with a slight twist on the question. I don't know much about ports. Actually I don't know much about any of this but the example I have most clearly in my mind because I have to take my shoes off every time I go through is the airports. Now so the response of Congress and the President Bush after 9/11 was to federalize the security, TSA. What does TSA stand for?
Frances Edwards: Transportation Security Administration.
Peter Robinson: Okay. So they invent a new federal thing. Now if you're talking about security being a private good, isn't that exactly the wrong way to go? Shouldn't you instead invite competition from a dozen or maybe a dozen dozen security firms to compete for contracts and compete for quality and indeed let United Airlines compete against Delta, against Northwest saying look, we do a better job of inspecting luggage? Shouldn't you push this into the marketplace instead of bringing it into the federal ambit ?
Stephen Flynn: There is a match between the two because transportation lives and dies by standards. So planes have to come in and out of airports. We can't have different rules in every seaport around the world. So there is a need for setting standards as how you arrive…
Peter Robinson: And that has to be done by the feds?
Stephen Flynn: No. The industry can develop them.
Peter Robinson: You think I'm making a good argument, don't you?
Frances Edwards: Well, I think you're making an interesting argument but the problem is we have…
Peter Robinson: As bad as that? I'm wounded.
Frances Edwards: We had private security at the airports before 9/11. And they were minimum wage people who were hired on a low bid basis by the airlines. And so the result was we didn't have a very good level of security and the people who were doing the security work often had limited English competency. So their ability to communicate their concerns with the passengers was also limited. One of the goals of TSA was to set standards, quality standards, for the type of people…
Peter Robinson: But you surely you could have done that without federalizing the whole industry.
Frances Edwards: Not at the speed with which they wanted to do it.
Peter Robinson: Oh really?
Stephen Flynn: Yeah.
Peter Robinson: You both buy that making the TSA a federal operation is a good idea?
Stephen Flynn: Here's a different model that we're trying to do in the seaport because it's much more complicated here because we're talking about international now.
Peter Robinson: Sure.
Stephen Flynn: Right? And an example of this is, you know, I get met in Singapore with 90% of the ocean carriage industry and there's not a single American in the room but myself. As we're making the case then but here is what we're looking there--I call it the green light approach. It's like…
Peter Robinson: Green?
Stephen Flynn: …the easy pass system that we use for toll collection now. The green light would be to say if you use a smart box in a container we can track with a berth certificate, somebody's authorized that basically validate what's in here is legitimate. That gets vetted.
Peter Robinson: And there's some technological overhang here…put a chip in or something. Okay. All right, go ahead.
Stephen Flynn: …and it costs you $50 a shipment to do this. We're going to give you something in return. The things in return is if we decide to target you for inspection, we're going to do you first. If we raise our alert levels, we're not going to mess with you because you've already done everything we need up front. And finally, if we turn the system off because of an event, we're going to start with you first. And then what happens here is then the port can build the infrastructure for them because it knows this customer's going to come because $50 for the insurance of not having a terrorist event shut down the system looks pretty attractive, given the alternative which is gridlock. There's a way of using--but that can't happen. I mean, the CEOs tell me that can't happen. The terminal operators say…
Peter Robinson: Without the Feds?
Stephen Flynn: Unless the feds come in and say as a policy, the way to approach this is that way. So it's a mix…
Peter Robinson: Now just how prepared are we to respond to terrorist attacks?
Title: Training Days
Peter Robinson: Matthew Brzezinski, "Rarely, if ever, are first responders all called on to do their jobs at the same time and on a massive scale that taxes all their resources, whether that means handling hundreds dead or injured, marshaling dozens of ladder companies at once or summoning an entire city supply of ambulances. Such efforts require careful coordination and almost military precision and rapid reaction." And yet he goes on to say that only in a very small handful of our biggest cities do large-scale exercises take place. How come?
Frances Edwards: Well, we're back to the threat analysis again. A community has to look at its day-to-day operations and determine how much of its scarce resources it can reasonably dedicate to emergency response versus libraries, schools or something else.
Peter Robinson: Obviously if you're hit, you want a rapid and efficient response. That's clear. But is response in some way also a defense against getting hit in the first place? That is to say…
Frances Edwards: Hardening the target…
Peter Robinson: Hardening the target.
Frances Edwards: Well, that's our theory.
Peter Robinson: Well, but if you're a terrorist and you say well we're not going to go to San Jose because anything we do there will have much less impact because they're so good at handling whatever we intend to throw at them. Is that a right way to think about it?
Stephen Flynn: Well, I think it certainly is one--is just a practical matter that some prudent measures we take at the local level can make the difference between tens of lives being lost or thousands of lives. That's just classic emergency preparedness thing.
Peter Robinson: Public health issues. Right.
Stephen Flynn: Hurricanes and so forth here. And in many cities in many urban areas have very frail systems to handle catastrophic events. That's just a reality. So we would save lives by having this capability and it would be multi-pronged beyond just terrorism but also yes, the broader case I would make is that by building defense which is both protection and response capabilities, you make catastrophic terrorism a less attractive means of warfare. There's not a huge bang for your buck.
Peter Robinson: You mentioned scarce resources. Are you happy with the resources that you have?
Frances Edwards: The difficulty that we have at the local government level is that the federal legislators who are providing most of the funding at the present time for the counter-terrorism, anti-terrorism, terrorism preparedness world are for the most part, very unfamiliar with local government. And they seem to think that providing us money to buy more equipment is the answer to our problems when, in fact, the answer to our problems is providing better training for the personnel that we have.
Peter Robinson: Training is also money though isn't it or…
Frances Edwards: Right. But for example, we right now have a $9.9 million urban area security initiative grant. And this…
Peter Robinson: Grant from whom? Who gives that?
Frances Edwards: From the federal government.
Peter Robinson: From the federal, okay.
Frances Edwards: Yes the 50 largest urban areas in the United States have been given these grants. And right now the money is allowed to be spent for planning, exercising, training, equipment acquisition or operations. And it's at the discretion of the locally elected officials how they want to allocate these funds. But there's a proposal in Congress right now to limit to 10% the amount of money that we can pay for overtime for training. And these kinds of limitations are foolish and actually this one's in the wrong direction.
Peter Robinson: So here we have the usual stupidity, right? In other words, we can argue--we can say right now--I think that both of you would agree with this--that when it comes to response, the correct locus of authority is local, right? And that if money does indeed have to get raised at the federal level, the spending decisions to the greatest extent possible should still be left in local hands. You'd agree with that?
Stephen Flynn: I would agree.
Peter Robinson: You agree with that, right?
Frances Edwards: Yes.
Stephen Flynn: Well yes, absolutely and that's where the expertise and capacity come. But it is resource and what we know--I mean, here Peter is the end, is the real challenge. Every reasonable person that's looked at this issue over the last five years says the threat is real and the impact would be terrible…
Peter Robinson: Right.
Stephen Flynn: …on the community should it happen. The people who are going to respond the first 24 hours are all going to be local. Everybody who's looked at what local capacity is to deal with a catastrophic attack says it's not good.
Peter Robinson: Why this breakdown? It's three and some years after 9/11. Gave you that quotation from Tom Kean who said all the experts think another one is on its way. And then we all sit here and agree that at the local level, we don't have what we need. Why the disconnect?
Stephen Flynn: It is because we haven't had a federalism conversation in this country. The federal government has basically said categorically, our money is only used for military and border security and states and locals and the private sector should take care of themselves.
Peter Robinson: Why shouldn't they take care of themselves?
Stephen Flynn: Because they can't. In the immediate…
Peter Robinson: Why not? Why should California, which if it were its own economy would be the seventh biggest in the country…
Stephen Flynn: Because it has a huge deficit which has to balance each year.
Peter Robinson: And the feds don't have a big deficit?
Stephen Flynn: They do but the feds can get away with it.
Peter Robinson: Last topic, how do we make sure that government efforts to protect us don't threaten our very way of life?
Title: One Nation Under Observation
Peter Robinson: I quoted Tom Kean who is Chairman of the 9/11 Commission. Let me quote you another member, Richard Ben-Veniste: "The authority of government must be tempered in these circumstances by an enhanced system of checks and balances to protect the personal liberties that define our way of life." What checks and balances can you offer to offset new federal authority, spending measures and so forth?
Stephen Flynn: Same measures we always use which is one, things like Inspector General functions here, greater civilian oversight boards which we do in the intelligence community and so forth. My issue is that to balance this act between security and liberties is if you give the government more authority which it does need for this kind of threat than what it had before, then you raise the accountability bar. And you raise the accountability bar by putting in place the same things as the nation rule or law we always use in these other areas. Make sure that we don't misuse power and therefore erode ultimately public confidence in our institutions. And that's why my main thrust is--I'm not worried about what the terrorists can do to us as much as we can do to ourselves. The fact is post-national traumas, whether you're democrat or republican, is not the time we have the most level heads.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Stephen Flynn: We can't guarantee we'll keep a level head after the next disastrous attack.
Peter Robinson: I see. So…
Stephen Flynn: But if we don't make prudent investments and we lose public confidence, the certainty of overreaction is almost guaranteed, not just exclusively…
Peter Robinson: Franny, what's your answer to this question or the concern that responding to terrorism leads almost inevitably to growth in government, government power and so forth?
Frances Edwards: Well, I think that we've seen a consolidation of government agencies in the Department of Homeland Security and it will remain to be seen whether that leads to a growth or whether it leads to cutback.
Peter Robinson: How do you see the creation of this gigantic new federal bureaucracy, the Department--I should say, by the way, to be fair, it's not as if it were created out of nothing. Put this bureaucracy…
Frances Edwards: It's a merger…
Peter Robinson: It's a merger, right. Okay. Let me ask you this, does that make you feel safer, better--that there is now a Department of Homeland Security?
Frances Edwards: No, it actually was a great disappointment to me because FEMA was an outstanding partner for us at the local government level.
Peter Robinson: FEMA is the Federal…
Frances Edwards: Federal Emergency Management Agency. And they worked with us on an all hazards approach disaster preparedness, which is the only approach that's financially sustainable and that's sustainable from a political perspective.
Peter Robinson: And they got swallowed by Homeland Security?
Frances Edwards: And they got swallowed so I'm just hopeful that they will be able to--now that their ability to respond to the hurricanes in Florida has been analyzed and Department of Homeland Security seems to have developed a respect for FEMA and their capability, I'm hoping that they may be able to have a stronger voice in the way the Department of Homeland Security develops in the future.
Peter Robinson: Last questions of the show. Five years from now, will we be as good at security in our ports, at least as good at security in our ports as we are in our airports? That is to say that we will have addressed the most pressing security issues. What do you think, Franny?
Frances Edwards: I think the ports, as Steve's pointed out, are a much different challenge because of the multi-national nature of the commerce. And in addition, once the materials arrive here, they go into commerce in different levels. Some of it's raw materials. Some of it's finished goods.
Peter Robinson: So it's hopeless?
Frances Edwards: No, but I think the time is going to be longer than what it took to turn…
Peter Robinson: Oh you do?
Frances Edwards: …the airports over.
Stephen Flynn: I think that the merging of the private sector desire for supply chain visibility, transportation asset visibility and the security imperative for greater policing capacity in the system here can merge and very quickly. If the government just embraces the policy--
Peter Robinson: And you're hopeful that it will?
Stephen Flynn: --without huge costs.
Peter Robinson: I understand that. What I'm asking now is for the two of you as professionals what you hear, what you feel. Are things coming together? Are you hopeful or do you feel as though you're screaming and beating your fists against a brick wall?
Stephen Flynn: Well, it's tough. It's a tough road on a lot of these critical infrastructures to get the action we need. And I think we're still seduced into thinking that if we can just take them out over there, somehow this will go away. I'm all for offense…
Peter Robinson: So that is the sense…
Stephen Flynn: …when we have the intelligence…
Peter Robinson: That is a snare and a delusion, this notion that offense…
Stephen Flynn: It is. It's part of the solution but we need overall resilience. There is strength not just in being able to throw a punch but being able to take a punch. And when you look at the Brit's model for being able to deal with V-bombs during the Second World War and terrorism with the IRA, it was a resilience of the society, resilience of a Maggie Thatcher…
Peter Robinson: They could take a…
Stephen Flynn: …take a hit. If we have no ability to do this here and people lose confidence in the government, that's where we get in the most dangerous scenarios.
Peter Robinson: Are you hopeful?
Frances Edwards: I think what Steve just said is the reason why local government emergency preparedness for all hazards is so critical because we can't prevent disasters from occurring but what we need to demonstrate as a local government is that we have the capability to respond to the essential needs of the community.
Peter Robinson: Are you hopeful? As a professional you attend conferences, you talk to your peers in other cities and so forth--are people getting their acts together in a way that pleases you?
Frances Edwards: I think we're much better off now than we were on 9/11 and I think in five years, we'll be better than we are today.
Peter Robinson: All right, Franny, Steve, thank you very much.
Stephen Flynn: Thank you very much.
Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.