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About the Author
Clark Kent Ervin is former Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security and currently holds a post at the Aspen Institute. He is an on-air terrorism analyst for CNN, and will be appearing regularly as an expert on Wolf Blitzer's show, The Situation Room. He is the author of Open Target. Previously, Ervin served as Inspector General of the State Department for over a year under Secretary Powell, and worked as Assistant Secretary of the State of Texas under President George W. Bush when he was Governor of Texas. Ervin has been profiled in media such as U.S. News and World Report, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, among others. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
Where America is Vulnerable to Attack
By Clark Kent Ervin
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2006 Clark Kent Ervin
All rights reserved.
I'm a stickler for timeliness. To me, being late is almost a sin — not just any sin, but an unforgivable one. I'm the kind of person who showed up at the airport two hours before flight time years before terrorists forced everyone else to. So, there was no way I was going to be late for my first meeting with Tom Ridge.
The White House is at most a ten-minute walk from the State Department. In no time, I was waiting patiently, if a little anxiously, in the cozy, dimly lit, elegantly appointed West Wing reception area with at least a half-hour to spare. As I waited, I went over my mental script again. I had it all thought out, and my mind was made up. I wanted Ridge to like me, but I didn't want him to like me too much. I would do my best to do well in the interview, but I didn't want to do too well. I was perfectly happy at the State Department, and I would be perfectly happy to stay there.
Being as good as you can be is always a challenge. Being almost as good as you can be, but not an iota better, would be even harder. My mental calibrations were so intricate and distracting that Ridge's assistant had to repeat herself and speak louder when she finally came out of what appeared to be nowhere to tell me that the Governor was ready to see me.
Ushering me into his tiny office, Ridge greeted me graciously and motioned for me to sit down. I settled in for what was scheduled to be only a fifteen-minute "chat."
Tom Ridge is an extraordinarily likable man. It's easy to see why he had such a successful career in electoral politics: He is friendly, engaging, and sincere, and, he pulls off the rare feat of being an imposing presence, while at the same time being utterly unpretentious and easily approachable. He's a huge man, 6'6?, and built like a football player, but his manner is so warm and welcoming that he creates a sense of intimacy with those he meets that has the immediate effect of bringing him down to eye level.
I found myself getting so comfortable with Ridge that I forgot that I was supposed to go only so far in selling myself and no further. I heard myself explaining why I would make not just a good Department of Homeland Security Inspector General, but the perfect one: I knew the job inside and out. I already had experience in visa matters, a key part of the border control aspect of homeland security. I was well versed in international affairs, and homeland security had a global dimension to it. I'd shown myself to be thorough, aggressive, and independent, and those were just the qualities the Homeland Security Department, more than any other agency in government, needed in an Inspector General. I could tell by Ridge's intense focus on me and his positive body language that I was racking up points on his mental scoreboard. The fifteen-minute chat stretched into an hour-long heart-to-heart session. By the end of it, we were remarking upon, and bonding over, the similarities between us. We both came from modest backgrounds. We had both gone to Harvard on scholarship. We had both lost our fathers to relatively early deaths. We were both trying to carve time out of our busy schedules to visit our aging mothers. As I walked out of the White House and into the dimming light of a chilly late fall Washington afternoon, it was clear to me that Tom Ridge and I had clicked. I was fairly certain that it would be only a matter of time before Presidential Personnel called back to offer me the job.
I would bask in the glow of that meeting for quite some time. It would take me a while to realize that I'd made a big mistake. Perhaps my time at Colin Powell's State Department had spoiled me: I'd thought that the Department of Homeland Security would be different from the run-of-the-mill agency where a "good enough for government work" mentality is pervasive. I assumed that the very best and brightest the country had to offer would be recruited to run and staff the agency charged with the task of preventing another terror attack on the homeland. I believed that the Secretary and his management team would move Heaven and Earth to close the gaps in America's defenses that my team and I would surely find the minute we set out to look for them. The very last thing I expected was to be made persona non grata for being impertinent enough to do my job.
If the story stopped here, this would be merely a history book, interesting perhaps to political junkies and students of government; but the story doesn't stop here. The gaps in America's defenses that my team and I uncovered during my time at the Department of Homeland Security largely remain, and, since then, still more gaps have been found.
Somewhere in the world today — perhaps right here in America, under our very noses, hiding in plain sight — terrorists are plotting another attack on the homeland. To succeed, they have to find out where we remain vulnerable, and then they need to figure out how to exploit those vulnerabilities to inflict the maximum possible degree of death, injury, and economic damage. So, the urgent question is, What is the state of homeland security today? In general terms, where are the gaps in security that terrorists can exploit right now to attack the homeland once again?
AMERICA'S OPEN DOORS
People in power in Washington, D.C., are bad at keeping secrets. The nation's capital is awash in a downpour of leaks. Many secrets are so poorly kept that they are secrets in name only. Probably the worst-kept secret is that our nation's borders are easy to slip through.
Until terror struck the homeland, this was mostly a political, social, and economic issue, and one of only secondary importance. After September 11, it became a national security issue, and one of first-order importance. Our approach to border control mirrors our approach to every other aspect of homeland security since the attacks: We've taken a half-step in the right direction, but we haven't done everything we can do. We haven't moved with the sense of warp-speed urgency that defending the nation requires; it's as if we think that terrorists are decent, honorable, reasonable, and empathetic. It's as if we think that they wouldn't dare attack until we get around to putting up as much in the way of defenses as we possibly can. In short, we're continuing to take what remains an essentially pre-9/11 approach, and moving at a pre-9/11 pace, in a radically different, post-9/11 world.
For example, in one key aspect of border security, DHS has made some progress. For the first time in our history, we're moving toward keeping track of who is entering our country — at least through legal channels. Thanks to the biometrics-based automated immigration system known as U.S. VISIT*, port of entry inspectors can confirm the identity of some entrants, and a more extensive check against terrorist and criminal watch lists can be run.
However, millions of people come to the United States each year by land, and most of those who do so come by way of Mexico and Canada. Most of those countries' citizens aren't subjected to the scrutiny of U.S. VISIT. Moreover, the exit feature is still only in a nascent stage. Until that feature is fully operational, we can't be sure whether terrorists who have managed to legally enter the country undetected by the U.S. VISIT system remain here or whether they've managed to sneak back out.
What about the millions of illegal aliens who continue to come to our country with relative ease? Because the border is so vast, it is critical that the number of Border Patrol agents be increased as much as possible as quickly as possible. During the course of the 2006 budget process, both houses of Congress supported increasing the number of agents by between 1,000 and 2,000, but the President's budget proposed hiring only about 200, suggesting that the administration considered border control to be a low priority. In the end, Congress provided funds to hire 1,500 additional agents, a step in the right direction, but that was 500 fewer than the goal set in the intelligence reform law passed less than a year earlier. Congress' unwillingness to meet its own goal suggests that it, too, places a lower priority on border control than the security of the nation can afford.
Even if the White House and Congress had agreed to even bigger increases in the number of Border Patrol agents, there can never be enough of them to cover the entire border. The wide deployment of effective technology such as sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles is vital to fill the gap. The department has begun to deploy this technology, but more needs to be done sooner rather than later. The technology has to work, and the government should not be overcharged for it. Little comfort in this regard can be taken from the expenditure of more than $200 million on a camera and sensor system so defective and riddled with problems that it proved to be worthless and had to be scrapped.
In the fall of 2005, Secretary Chertoff announced a border security initiative that promises to provide both more Border Patrol agents and more and better technology. But we've heard this all before, and our borders remain far easier to penetrate than they should be.
As noted earlier, one of the first things I did as Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security in the summer of 2003 was to send a team of undercover investigators to airports around the country to see whether there had been any improvement in the ability of airport screeners to detect concealed guns, knives, and explosives. My team found it far easier than it should have been to sneak these weapons past screeners. Had they been terrorists, my investigators would have succeeded all too often in bringing these instruments of death onto airplanes. One of the last things I did as my time as Inspector General counted down in the late fall of 2004 was to ask my staff to conduct a second round of undercover tests at the same airports to see whether screener performance had improved two years later. The tests were conducted, the results came in, and a disturbing conclusion was reached. In short, no improvement in screener performance was found.
In addition to screener performance, I remain concerned about what we found regarding the issue of criminal background checks for airport screeners. When my team of inspectors looked into the issue, we found convicted criminals within the screener workforce. The reality that criminals had been among the ranks of airport screeners raised for me the question of whether terrorists might have been, too, and TSA's laxity in vetting procedures at the time gave me little comfort as to the likelihood of that terrible possibility.
As for air marshals, how effective can they be if their identities can be discerned by the order in which they board flights, where they sit on flights, and which hotels they may check into while on the road?
On the issue of the security of airports themselves, the degree to which perimeters are vigorously patrolled varies from airport to airport. Further, the degree to which vendors, delivery personnel, and repair and maintenance workers are vetted before they are hired, and the degree to which they are permitted to access secure parts of the airport without adequate screening, is, in a word, unclear.
With regard to cargo on passenger planes, the Department of Homeland Security makes a point of boasting that all cargo is "screened" before it is loaded onto flights, but the term is misleading. "Screened" does not mean "inspected." What the department means is that all cargo manifests are scrutinized to see whether any red flags, which would warrant physically inspecting a particular container, are raised. In addition to such "targeted" inspections, there are occasional random inspections of this package or that. Most commercial flights contain some cargo, and the vast majority of cargo on passenger planes is not inspected, a fact that most passengers are unaware of. The explosive device that "shoe bomber" Richard Reid was trying to ignite on a flight from Paris to Miami could have killed every passenger on board. An explosive device hidden in the cargo hold could do the same thing.
With regard to international flights bound for the United States, there continue on a regular basis to be mid-flight diversions when the name of a passenger matches or appears to match the name of someone on the "no fly" list. That list contains the names of those throughout the world known to the United States government to be a threat to aviation. The mid-flight diversions will continue unless and until the Department of Homeland Security succeeds in working out an arrangement with international airlines and foreign governments whereby passenger manifests are sent to the U.S. government before flights take off. At present, airlines have up to fifteen minutes after planes take off to transmit passenger manifests to DHS. If a terrorist is intent simply on blowing up an airplane, as opposed to hijacking it and flying it into a target into the United States, fifteen minutes may be more than enough time to accomplish his goal.
Finally, the department has launched what is, in theory, a promising plan called the Immigration Security Initiative (ISI). Reminiscent of a similar program to check oceangoing cargo for weapons of mass destruction known as the "Container Security Initiative" (CSI), the Customs and Border Protection bureau stations some of its port of entry inspectors at some foreign airports. Before flights bound for the United States depart, these inspectors question passengers whom they deem to be potential security risks, and they inspect passengers' passports and other such documents to ensure that they are genuine, valid, and otherwise sufficient for entry into the United States. Inspectors are stationed in less than a handful of airports around the world, however, and in those few countries where the program is operational, it is only as effective as a counterterrorism tool to the degree that our inspectors are actually permitted by foreign countries to do their work. Countries vary widely in the degree to which they permit other countries' security personnel to operate freely. Any limitations on the degree to which ISI inspectors can scrutinize passengers and their documentation limit the security protection provided by the program.
PORT SECURITY AND NUCLEAR ATTACK
Less than a quarter of the radiation detection devices needed to check all incoming cargo at America's seaports have been installed; in New York, none of the cargo that moves through the largest ship terminal or goods leaving the port by rail or barge is inspected for radiation, according to the security manager for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and, where radiation detection devices are installed, they are of limited value. They have proved to be unable to distinguish between innocuous, naturally occurring radiation in substances like ceramic tile, cat litter, and bananas, and dangerous weapons-grade uranium.
Two key maritime security programs are riddled with problems. To focus for now on only one, the department's Container Security Initiative makes a lot of sense, in theory. The idea behind it is to "push the borders out" by stationing customs inspectors at foreign ports to see to it that high-risk cargo is inspected for weapons of mass destruction before it sails for the United States. But, according to a Government Accountability Office report, there are a variety of problems with the program in practice.
For one thing, U.S. inspectors don't conduct the inspections themselves; they only review cargo manifests for suspicious items and other anomalies. If this "targeting" exercise leads them to believe that a particular shipment should be inspected, they must ask the host country's inspectors to do so.
For another thing, a significant percentage of U.S.-bound shipments from CSI ports were not targeted to determine whether they were high-risk enough to merit inspection, and, therefore, those shipments were not inspected. Furthermore, a significant percentage of the containers that were targeted and then referred to foreign governments for inspection were actually not inspected by those governments for one reason or another. Finally, as for those targeted containers that are inspected, there is limited assurance that the inspections are effective in detecting weapons of mass destruction because of variances in the capability of the detection equipment employed abroad.
To top it all off, monies awarded by the department to secure ports across the country have on occasion been misdirected to projects of dubious security value. For example, $180,000 was spent to install security lights in a "small, remote facility" that receives fewer than twenty ships annually.
Excerpted from Open Target by Clark Kent Ervin. Copyright © 2006 Clark Kent Ervin. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents
1. Homeland (In)security
2. America's Open Doors
3. Air Attack
4. Port Security and Nuclear Attack
5. Mass Transit Attack
6. Critical Infrastructure and "Soft" Targets
7. The Failure of Intelligence
8. Preparing for a Catastrophic Attack
9. Wasteful Spending and Sloppy Accounting
Conclusion: Closing the Vulnerability Gap