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Bush Just Talks the Talk on Security

May 28, 2003|Stephen J. Schulhofer | Stephen J. Schulhofer, a law professor at NYU, is the author of "The Enemy Within: Intelligence Gathering, Law Enforcement and Civil Liberties in the Wake of September 11" (2002, the Century Foundation).

With the risk of a terrorist attack again at the dangerous "orange" level, Bush administration press releases assure us that homeland security remains the president's No. 1 priority. His actions, unfortunately, are dangerously at odds with his words.

The Bush administration has won a reputation for toughness by claiming sweeping surveillance authority and broad emergency powers to detain citizens and foreign nationals without judicial approval. But when money is needed, homeland counter-terrorism priorities repeatedly take a back seat to the president's tax-cutting agenda.

Last year, Congress appropriated millions to enhance airport security, FBI counter-terrorism technology and protection of the food and water supply. But in August, President Bush froze the bulk of these funds, stressing the need for "fiscal restraint." Obviously, cutting taxes cuts revenue.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency that protects our nuclear stockpile and weapons laboratories, has had a shortage of security guards. Yet the agency was forced to announce a hiring freeze last November because of budget constraints.

The administration identified 123 chemical plants where a terror attack could kill thousands of people, but it accepted a weak bill that leaves responsibility for security with private industry (repeating the mistake we thought we had learned from Sept. 11) and provides little funding for enforcement.

The White House has rebuffed efforts of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) and other congressional leaders to meet the needs of police, firefighters and other "first responders"; in the current budget cycle the administration opposes a $5-billion grant program crafted by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and sought to eliminate $900 million in law enforcement grants sought by House Republicans.

Security for our ports is an urgent priority. The Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 mandates extensive improvements but provides no money to meet the need, a deliberate omission repeated in the president's 2003 budget. The 2002 maritime act also mandates vulnerability assessments at the nation's 55 largest ports, but at the current pace, slowed by lack of funds, the assessments won't be completed until 2009.

Efforts to upgrade facilities at the Centers for Disease Control lag badly. Though he often refers to the catastrophic dangers of bioterrorism, the president has sought no increase in funding for the CDC. The president's 2003 budget actually cuts overall funding for the CDC and trims more than $10 million from its crucial Center for Infectious Diseases. The funding squeeze stymied CDC plans for an urgently needed emergency-operations center. The center was finally completed last month, only because a private donor contributed $4 million for the project.

Not all Republicans support increased funding. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said last month that homeland security should not become "another government spigot where we spew money all over the country." But no one who has looked at our vulnerabilities doubts that these funding needs are real. The only questions are whether security measures will be implemented at all and who will pay for them.

Because state and local governments can't pick up the tab, and private philanthropists are rare, the administration's current plan to finance port protection relies on "user fees". This is no way to get the job done quickly. It has the added irony of shifting taxes to middle-income consumers and chilling any economic stimulus that a dividend tax cut might provide.

For most other security needs, like first responders and the CDC, "user fees" are not an option. More likely, the job will be completed slowly and imperfectly, if at all.

One lesson of the attacks in Saudi Arabia this month is that unlimited government powers of surveillance, detention and interrogation are of little value if attractive targets are left lightly protected. The U.S. ambassador has publicly criticized the Saudi government for its halfhearted efforts to beef up security at residential enclaves. That neglect left those targets vulnerable, even after intelligence officials warned specifically that an attack against Americans in the country was imminent. Do we think it can't happen here?

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