A Watchful Eye

If you lock three of your car's four doors, is it three times safer than if you locked only one? Obviously not. If all four doors aren't secured, the car isn't safe. Then again, suppose a thief can't tell which of the doors are locked, and if he tries to open one that is locked he gets an electric shock that disables him and the police immediately show up to arrest him. In that case, having three locked doors is indeed three times better than one and infinitely better than if a thief knows that no doors are ever locked.

That, in a nutshell, describes what is going to become an increasingly partisan debate in advance of the 2004 elections over homeland security--a battle in which Sen. Hillary Clinton fired the first shot last month, when she called homeland security "a myth." As Orange Alert and pre-Iraq-war jitters intensify, it's a fight that's certain to continue to heat up, and likely to flare out of control when another terrorist attack occurs.

Here are five realities to keep in mind to help cut through the rhetoric:

Saying the country is not doing enough will always be true. Senator Clinton was right. After all, in a country that has 7,500 miles of border, thousands of miles of natural-gas pipelines, tens of thousands of facilities storing or shipping dangerous chemicals, infinite entrances to subways, trains or building lobbies and just as many points of vulnerability related to the food or water supply or office-building-ventilation systems, it is impossible to plug all the holes--or lock all the car doors.

Homeland security is a great issue for the Democrats. It's a smart way for Democrats to sound tough and patriotic, and criticize Republicans for being soft. But the funding issue is more complicated than Democrats like Clinton have made it out to be; the Bush administration's new budget includes significant increases for homeland security at a time when most other domestic spending is being tightly controlled. Still, the Democrats have a good argument that the administration seems willing to spend much more on dividend tax cuts than on port security or equipment for local first-responders. Then again...

Spending more on homeland security is not synonymous with strengthening homeland security. Clinton bashed Bush using a study that said most cities and counties in New York state had not yet received any aid from Washington to fight terrorism. But the delay in sending out aid has to do not only with the fact that Congress is five months late in finishing the current-fiscal-year budget, but also with a dispute over who gets to decide how the money is spent. What Clinton was really arguing for was a system of unrestricted block grants for these local governments, whereas Bush and his new secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, want to provide the aid through the states so the states can vet the communities' homeland-security battle plans, and decide what deserves to be funded.

True, some cities, especially larger ones like New York, have sophisticated antiterrorism programs that merit their own grants from Washington. But unrestricted grants to every locality in the name of fighting terrorism could end up being something quite different. After all, state and local officials are facing their own budget crises, and will find it awfully tempting to keep some extra cops on the payroll by calling them terrorism fighters rather than invest the funds in real antiterrorism efforts, such as radiation detectors or bioterror evacuation drills.

Conversely, beefing up homeland security doesn't always require large amounts of new taxpayer money. For example, by refining its risk criteria for deciding which cargo containers need careful inspection, Customs inspectors at the ports have already boosted safety, even while they await additional research and funds for better sealing of cargo containers in transit. But on other fronts, the Bush administration is vulnerable in this regard. The chemical and nuclear-power industries need tougher regulation of their safety procedures, not federal funds. Yet except for a few senators, such as Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Clinton, the administration hasn't been given much grief for its unwillingness to clamp down. Similarly, one would think that a political party that puts so much stock in the ability of the private sector to solve problems would be aggressively jawboning insurance companies to set rates and offer discounts based on evaluations of the security precautions taken by all varieties of business clients--from office buildings to theaters. No sign of that yet.

The Pearl Harbor analogy is facile but not completely fair. Senator Clinton and others have evoked the way FDR summoned the nation following Pearl Harbor as an example of what this president failed to do. It's true that President Bush did not ask us to sacrifice when he could have and probably should have, perhaps with a mandatory national-service program aimed at getting young people enlisted for a year or two in the various aspects of the homeland-security fight. Nonetheless, it must be remembered how different and how multifaceted this new threat is. It is one thing to enlist troops and retrofit factories to fight a conventional war against a visible, foreign enemy. It is quite another to protect the homeland against hidden terrorists. There's a tricky balance to be struck between galvanizing people and alarming them so much that they are scared out of their way of life, which is the terrorists' goal.

The Democrats' eagerness to get as many "I told you so's" on the record in advance of the next attack is understandable, indeed helpful in terms of pushing the government to act. Yet significant progress has been made on most fronts. To deny that, or to slough it off as "not enough," ignores what tens of thousands of dedicated people--from Customs inspectors at the ports, to the new federalized screeners at the airports, to their "bureaucrat" bosses in Washington--did in the year after September 11. They worked backbreaking hours and came up with all kinds of solutions on the fly worthy of the Pearl Harbor generation that preceded them.

The debate needs to be about tangible results coming from better management. Casting blame after the next attack will be easy. So is claiming credit simply by spending money or establishing a new cabinet agency. But if either side wants the debate to be credible and useful, it should specify now in terms that everyone can understand what the goals should be for the next six and 12 months and then ask an independent agency, like Congress's General Accounting Office, to report on how the goals are being met. For example, Ridge should define in unfudgeable specifics what he will have achieved by then with the Immigration and Naturalization Service's entry-exit system, which is designed to make sure foreigners entering the United States on visas leave when they are supposed to. The current system is a farce; let's see what putting it under Ridge in his new megadepartment has achieved in six months and a year.

Similarly, the opposition should tell us what they think Ridge should be able to achieve and how he should be able to achieve it--not in terms of checks written, but in terms of actually making the country safer. For example, the new Homeland Security Task Force, organized by Senate Democrats and chaired by New York Sen. Charles Schumer, could set a demonstrably realistic standard for improving the chances of Customs' finding radiation bombs in the ports (a pet issue of Schumer's). Then they could ask the GAO to measure progress by sending undercover teams in to try to smuggle that kind of material in.

A regular GAO report card on both sets of goals would be more useful than what is now shaping up as an argument where both sides have a good but empty claim. For when it comes to terrorism, we're never doing enough, even if we're doing all we can. The question is not how much either side cares or how much we're spending, but what we're achieving.