Wednesday, April 12, 2006

What will it take?

The trial of Zacarias Moussaoui is riveting the nation in a way that nothing has since 9/11 itself. It is heartrending to read and hear accounts of the horrors of that awful day. In his testimony the other day, Rudy Giuliani spoke of seeing two people jumping to their deaths to escape the searing flames of a collapsing World Trade Center tower, holding hands as they plummeted to their deaths. A worker at the Pentagon told of trying frantically to pull a co-worker to safety only to see his burning colleague's skin come off in his hands.

As I watched and read these news reports, I couldn't help but wonder - how much more motivation do our nation's leaders need finally to do everything within their power to secure the homeland? Of course, they already claim to be moving Heaven and Earth to protect us, but the record of the Department of Homeland Security these last three years proves otherwise.

Just in the last few days, the department announced that it is moving forward to solicit vendors interested in helping to produce a biometric ID card called "TWIC" (for Transportation Worker Identification Credential") for transportation workers in the maritime sector. In the absence of such a card, illegal aliens, criminals, and even, terrorists could be among those working in sensitive areas in our seaports.

This is good news, on its face. Certainly there should be such a verification system at our seaports, through which terrorists (everyone agrees) are likeliest to try to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction. And, of course, we need such a system in our airports, railyards, and mass transit stations, too.

But, here we are, nearly five years after 9/11, and more than three years after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and we still have no TWIC program in place. In the Information Age, in the world's most technologically and economically advanced country, it shouldn't be that hard to get this done, and yet it still isn't done. It shows that, public pronouncements to the contrary, DHS' leaders aren't moving with the sense of urgency that the threat to our nation requires. As I've said before, they're moving at a pre-9/11 pace in a post 9/11 world.

There are lots of other examples of instances where DHS has dragged its feet. Three years ago when I was still DHS' Inspector General, my office recommended the deployment at airports throughout the nation of "backscatter" technology that can see through clothing and detect concealed guns and knives on passengers moving through checkpoints. And, still, this technology remains only in the pilot stage.

We still don't have a prioritized list of the nation's most critical infrastructure. So, we don't know how to allocate scarce homeland security dollars so as to protect our most vital assets according to their respective degree of vulnerability. How hard can it be to take an inventory like this? As hard as it may be, it oughtn't to take five years, or even three.

Back to the Moussaoui trial. I sometimes think that the antidote to DHS lethargy is, if not another attack (God forbid), forcing its leaders to listen to every 9/11 tape from that awful day and to hear the "victim impact statement" of everyone who lost a loved one. If that wouldn't motivate everyone to redouble their efforts to secure the homeland, it would then be clear that only another attack can. Let us hope for the nation's sake that it won't have to come to that.