The Next Administration Must Set Priorities for Homeland Security

As the shock of 9/11 fades, there is a need to determine which efforts to expand or to cut back.

Radiation detection portals scan cargo leaving Norfolk International Terminal.

Looking for a nuclear weapon or dirty-bomb materials.

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Since the terrorist attacks in 2001, an 18-member National Guard contingent has augmented security around the clock at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass. Next month, though, these soldiers will end their mission, since state officials concluded that the potential threat doesn't justify the $1.5 million-a-year expense. It's the same with many other security measures around the country that were launched with much fanfare and are now being quietly reassessed, revamped, or rolled back.

This is a touchy subject. "There are no politically viable words to say what's going on," remarks Juliette Kayyem, under secretary of the Massachusetts homeland security department. "You can't say 'ratchet down' or 'drawing back'; there's only the 'ratchet up' theory of homeland security." But a quiet ratcheting down is exactly what is happening around the country after nearly seven nervous years on high alert.

So far, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama has filled in many details of how he would address a variety of pressing issues that fall under the heading of homeland security, including counterterrorism, cargo screening, disaster preparedness, and port security. Obama, even before he secured the nomination, was the lone candidate to publish policy ideas specific to homeland security on his website. But though he sits on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, he rarely speaks about the topic on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, McCain staffers say that the presumptive GOP nominee plans a formal policy address on homeland security in the coming weeks.

Topics of more immediacy to voters—the economy, for instance—have taken precedence during the primaries. And many experts are quietly hoping it will stay that way. "Part of me doesn't want homeland security to become a big political issue in this campaign; if it does, whoever wins will be forced to make dramatic changes," says James Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "What we now need to do is improve it, better manage it, and make it more focused."

The next president will play a major role in prioritizing security initiatives in response to the changing assessments of threats. But the issues start with defining what constitutes homeland security. Republicans define it broadly to include the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and U.S. border security. A successful homeland defense, the GOP argues, depends not just on measures at home but on achieving military victory abroad. Democrats consider the wars as separate issues from homeland defense, which they more often define as port and airline security and disaster response.

"It's a good issue for the Democrats because they can argue there's a huge gap between the rhetoric—that the country faces an existential threat—and the record of this administration, which has left all these vulnerabilities unaddressed so many years after 9/11," says Clark Kent Ervin, head of the Homeland Security Program at the Aspen Institute and the first inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security. For example, airline security, where Americans most frequently encounter DHS's role, remains surprisingly vulnerable, judging from undercover tests that screeners routinely fail.

Katrina aftermath. Homeland security, goes the maxim, is all about bad guys, bad bugs, and bad weather. Airline security and other counterterrorism measures are what first comes to mind, but the Bush administration's systemic failure to quickly deal with the Hurricane Katrina disaster highlights the stakes for disaster preparedness. Both candidates have been critical of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. McCain favors greater integration between the public and private sectors for disaster response. "UPS, FedEx, and Wal-Mart can tell in real time where a package is anywhere in the world, but FEMA, despite its multibillion-dollar budget, couldn't track many of its assets during its Katrina response," McCain told a crowd last month. Obama wants to remove the agency from DHS altogether, making its chief directly accountable to the president, and to extend the FEMA director's tenure to six years to depoliticize the office. "We need to know—before disaster comes—who will be in charge and how the federal, state, and local governments will work together to respond," he told a rally in New Orleans in February.