War on terror eclipses homeland security effort

Two and a half years after 9/11, the Bush administration remains primarily focused on waging a war on terrorism abroad. The effort to establish, organize, fund and manage the Homeland Security Department has taken a back seat.

The day was September 10, 2001. Official Washington had just returned from its sleepy August recess.

At the White House, Adm. Steve Abbot was reporting for his new assignment: leading Vice President Dick Cheney's task force on terrorism. At the National Security Council, the Deputies Committee was putting the finishing touches on its three-year plan to put Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network out of commission, ideally by winning the cooperation of Afghanistan's fundamentalist Taliban, which was harboring them. Over at Langley, the CIA counterterrorism center's first chief of strategic assessment was also starting his first day on the job. At the Justice Department, Attorney General John Ashcroft was rejecting -- for a second time -- the FBI's plea for a bigger counter-terrorism budget.

On that Monday, the Bush administration viewed terrorism as an "important but not urgent" threat to national security, according to not only then-White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke but also Republican former Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, co-chair of an anti-terrorism commission that had briefed key Bush aides in early 2001.

A look back at the United States' anti-terrorism posture in the final hours before the devastating attacks of September 11 also reveals an administration that did not view terrorism as a domestic matter. Rather, Bush officials saw terrorism as a foreign issue, one largely within the purview of the NSC, the Defense Department, and the CIA. Homeland defense meant missile defense.

Two and a half years after 9/11, the Bush administration is deeply enmeshed in its "war on terrorism," but remains primarily focused on the part of that fight it is waging abroad. When talking of terrorism, President Bush emphasizes the importance of staying "on offense." Bolstering homeland security -- domestic efforts to defend against another attack on American soil -- is Plan B.

That's a smart strategy, says James Carafano, a homeland-security and defense specialist at the Heritage Foundation. He compares the fight against terrorism to World War II. "The first priority was to defeat Germany. The president's strategy [today] is a similar thing. It's 'get the terrorists first,' " Carafano says. "The 'away' game is more important. You've got to spend some on defense, but offense wins the ballgame."

Yet, many other observers warn that the Bush administration's obsessive focus on fighting terrorism abroad is dangerously shortchanging domestic-security measures, despite the creation of a Homeland Security Department. "He's put most of his eggs -- virtually all of them -- into fighting the war on terrorism at its presumed source," says Stephen E. Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the forthcoming book America the Vulnerable. "The reality is, there are no fronts on the war on terrorism. The terrorists are in the first world. They use our stuff against us."

Trying to catch or kill terrorists before they reach this country -- or, as the Bush team likes to say, in Baghdad, not Boston -- sounds terrific. The unfortunate reality, though, is that intelligence experts suspect that terrorists or their active supporters are already embedded in American soil and are spread across perhaps 40 states. That likelihood, in the view of Flynn and like-minded critics, underscores that Bush's "the-best-defense-is-a-good-offense" approach is, at best, only half a strategy.

Sources who have worked for and with this administration say that the Homeland Security Department, which opened its doors just as Bush went to war in Iraq, gets second-class treatment from the White House. These observers contend that the administration's decision to relegate fighting terrorism within the United States to a secondary priority explains many of the problems that government officials are encountering in trying to make this country less vulnerable -- crossed communication wires, lack of any communication wires, confusion over who's in charge, turf battles among departments, infighting, and senior staff turnover. Citing fear of retribution, most of the sources with firsthand knowledge of these shortcomings spoke only on condition of anonymity.

A number of former Bush administration officials volunteered a similar anti-terrorism picture: an administration focused largely on the "away" game but ardently protective of its image on homeland security. Indeed, one source said the White House has given Homeland Security a "no headlines" mandate this year -- and told it to refrain from announcing any goals that must be met before the election. That run-out-the-clock approach is risky if the White House truly believes, as Bush has said, that this election year is an extremely tempting time for terrorists to strike.

The root of the frustration reluctantly voiced by these Bush administration alums is their sense that things didn't have to be this way. They describe the administration's progress on homeland security as a bell curve. The curve peaked when the White House acknowledged that someone ought to be in charge of domestic security and decided to back proposals for a Department of Homeland Security, but the rate of progress has been declining ever since the department opened for business on March 1, 2003. One Bush administration veteran says the White House's announcement of the new department marked the start of an "era of great promise," but added that an "era of retrenchment" began as soon as the department actually came into existence.

Defenders of Bush's post-9/11 record on homeland security stress that his administration is undertaking enormous tasks and that, understandably, much remains to be done. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card describes the government-wide effort to enhance domestic security as uneven. "It's maturing," he recently told National Journal. "It's probably kind of in the teenage [stage] right now. Some of the teenagers are a little obstreperous, and some are not. And some are really sucking up to do a good job, and others are hoping they can sleep until 10 o'clock in the morning. But we are working hard to have all of these entities understand the paramount responsibility that they have."

Yet, the administration's overseas fight against terrorism is undeniably more focused, more sustained, and better funded than the fight at home.

Important, Not Urgent

Homeland security made a cameo appearance early in George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. In a September 1999 address on military policy, the Texas governor mentioned threats posed by "biological, chemical, and nuclear terrorism." He reminded his audience at the Citadel, "These weapons can be delivered not just by ballistic missiles, but by everything from airplanes to cruise missiles, from shipping containers to suitcases."

In his general election campaign, though, Bush pared back his message to differentiate himself from his Democratic rival: Homeland defense became missile defense.

A foreign-policy adviser to the 2000 Bush campaign now says, "I think both campaigns missed it when it came to terrorism." Candidate Bush warned of "rogue regimes" that might get their hands on unguarded nuclear material that they could turn into warheads and fire at the United States. Republicans hoped that this focused message would set Bush apart from what his campaign saw as Democrat Al Gore's "kitchen sink" approach, which defined everything from AIDS to the environment as national security issues. Neither campaign talked much about terrorist networks.

On Election Day, the country had little interest in foreign affairs -- even though the USS Cole had been attacked by terrorists just a month earlier. In a presidential election focused on children left behind and Social Security lockboxes, only 5 percent of voters cited foreign policy as the most important factor in their vote. In the summer of 2000, the nation's 50 largest newspapers printed 512 articles about shark attacks, according to professor Amy Zegart of the University of California at Los Angeles. By comparison, in the three years immediately before the 9/11 attacks, the Hart-Rudman Commission's warning about the threat of terrorism sparked just 47 stories in top papers.

After the election, former Sens. Rudman and Gary Hart, D-Colo., completed their commission's third and final report, warning of the high likelihood of a terrorist attack in America. They urged the government to work to thwart such an attack by merging border-control and emergency-management agencies into a new homeland-security agency.

Before releasing their report in February 2001, commissioners briefed three key members of the new administration: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The Hart-Rudman panelists also sought to meet with Vice President Cheney, but were turned down.

"We did everything we were asked to do," Rudman recalls, "and the ball was in their court." He added that, to the Bush team, terrorism, "as Richard Clarke said, was 'important but not urgent,' and that's probably as accurate a description as you're going to get."

The two former senators worked the halls of Congress, too. In early May 2001, as the Senate prepared for three days of hearings on terrorism, Bush pre-empted the legislative branch. He directed Cheney to establish a task force to look into terrorism and asked Joe M. Allbaugh, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to assess national preparedness.

At that time, U.S. border-control agencies were not focused on preventing terrorism -- and were not expected to be. The Immigration and Naturalization Service was a management mess, and Bush had brought in James Ziglar, who had presided over reorganizations in the federal government and at brokerage firm Paine Webber, to clean it up.

At the Justice Department, May 2001 guidelines for the coming budget season listed the attorney general's top priorities as reducing gun violence and curbing drug trafficking. Former FBI counter-terrorism chief Dale Watson "told us he almost fell out of his chair when he saw the memo," according to a staff report from the Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, known as the 9/11 commission, which is investigating the government's actions leading up to the attacks. At the FBI, the security focus was on damage control in the wake of agent Robert Hanssen's arrest for selling secrets to the Russians.

Then, in the summer of 2001, intelligence "chatter" warning of impending terrorist strikes put much -- but not all -- of the federal government on high alert. CIA Director George Tenet, Rice, and Clarke, as well as then-acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard, all say that they warned colleagues and underlings in July of the increased chatter coming in over the CIA transom.

But Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has said he knew nothing about the alerts. And FBI field agents -- from Washington to Miami -- got no warnings, according to the 9/11 commission. Meanwhile that summer, an FBI agent in Phoenix drafted a memo to warn the bureau's leaders of "the possibility of a coordinated effort by Osama bin Laden" involving suspected terrorists taking flying lessons. That memo drew no response.

Bush was warned of possible hijackings in the now-famous August 6 President's Daily Brief, which referred to the FBI's "70 full field investigations throughout the U.S. that it considers bin Laden-related." The president says he did not ask anyone to follow up because he considered the PDB a "historical" document. John MacGaffin, who spent 31 years at the CIA and later was a senior adviser at the FBI, says Bush ought to have directed Rice to have the NSC's Counterterrorism Support Group look into bin Laden's activity in the United States. "I think that's a real failure," MacGaffin says. "It was, after all, the CSG's responsibility to direct the FBI to follow up. But it was August, and we don't work very well in August."

While much of Washington took the month off, the FBI's Minneapolis field office learned of a flight school student -- a French citizen of Moroccan descent named Zacarias Moussaoui -- who was behaving suspiciously. The INS detained him while the FBI launched an investigation and quibbled over whether it was an intelligence case or a criminal one. At the same time, a few FBI, CIA, and INS agents knew that two suspected bin Laden operatives had entered the country. A search for them began, but no one alerted the upper echelons of the CIA or the FBI. On September 11, the two men were among those who flew a jetliner into the Pentagon.

Governing by Improvisation

Bush met with the attorney general on September 12 and gave him an order: "John, you make sure this doesn't happen again." Ashcroft left the meeting and immediately declared that preventing terrorism was the new No. 1 priority for the Justice Department and the FBI. In other words, Ashcroft told the FBI to suddenly shift gears from fighting crime to preventing it.

Ashcroft asked Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh to come up with a plan of action. The result was a dual-pronged approach: 1) preventing terrorism through prosecution, which meant the government was to use any legal means to lock up suspected terrorists; 2) shifting the hearts and minds of law enforcement officials toward prevention by enhancing their investigative powers. Those new powers were written into the USA PATRIOT Act, which Bush signed into law just six weeks later.

The PATRIOT Act covers the law enforcement landscape, from breaking down the wall between criminal and intelligence investigations to bolstering the Border Patrol. The act exponentially increased "our ability to detect and deter terrorism," says Dinh, who likens the effect of the act to patching holes in a net. The administration also reorganized both the FBI and the INS to make them more effective at patching those holes.

Immediately after 9/11, Bush had also huddled with his staff to determine how the White House could quickly get a handle on the newly perceived need for enhanced domestic security. Thrust into the role of both mourner- and protector-in-chief, he began building America's first homeland-security system. His administration had an incredibly steep learning curve to climb. But the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was a period of high energy, enormous productivity, and strong public support for the president -- and he capitalized on it.

As the administration prepared to attack Al Qaeda by striking Afghanistan, officials looked for a way to synchronize the work of 100-plus federal agencies on domestic security -- without creating a new bureaucracy. Seizing on the NSC model, Bush created a White House Office of Homeland Security. And on September 20, he appointed then-Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania to head the council, as the president's homeland-security adviser.

Ridge assumed that post on October 8 amid an anthrax scare. A Florida man had already died after opening a contaminated letter. Then, anthrax-laced letters arrived in the offices of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. The resulting governmental chaos produced a first-class public health and public-relations disaster. Ridge and the Justice Department took to jointly issuing vague threat warnings. Governors began freelancing: California's Gray Davis warned on November 1 of a terrorist threat to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson had been working on bioterrorism strategy since his first day on the job, but he hadn't fixed the broken chain of command that allowed officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to bypass him and speak directly to the public. The embarrassment of the anthrax confusion prompted HHS to build a command center, over the objections of the CDC, to try to ensure that agencies cleared information with department leaders before tossing it out to the public.

"If you ever want to see Tommy Thompson go through the ceiling, it's finding out something [from the CDC] on CNN," said Jerry Hauer, who advised Thompson on bioterrorism.

HHS also expanded its stockpiles of vaccines for potential bioterrorism agents. But Bush's plan to vaccinate health workers for smallpox bombed, because the Office of Management and Budget wouldn't cover liability against possible lawsuits.

Back at the White House, Ridge quickly realized that he lacked real authority to orchestrate the activities of all the departments and agencies with a hand in homeland security. For the moment, he settled for asking nicely that they all cooperate.

Homeland Ascent

December 21, 2001, was not Ridge's best day. Sitting in the White House's Roosevelt Room with the Cabinet secretaries responsible for pieces of homeland security, he described the problems of coordination at the borders and declared that all border-control agencies ought to be merged. But each secretary claimed to have responsibility for ridding the country of terrorists. None of them wanted to give up jurisdiction. Ridge's proposal was scrapped.

"It was classic," complains Card, who attended the meeting. "It lived down to my expectations." Meanwhile, pressure for a department of homeland security was mounting within both parties. If the White House didn't act, Congress would -- and embarrass Bush in the process. So Card decided to circumvent the turf wars and develop a new plan -- in secret. In the President's Emergency Operations Center, he gathered OMB Director Mitchell Daniels; Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Bolton; the Vice President's chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby; and Ridge.

Eventually, that secret task force crafted a proposal for merging 22 federal agencies into one new department. Congress welcomed the plan.

But as the 2002 midterm elections neared, the political parties clashed over the level of civil service protections for the new department's employees. The administration demanded "managerial flexibility." Congressional Democrats sided with labor. The administration won by steamrolling the Democrats.

But as the administration solved one problem, another emerged.

The FBI had come under fire for mishandling both the Phoenix agent's warning and the Moussaoui investigation. In May 2002, Director Robert Mueller unveiled a plan to refocus the FBI on terrorism by shifting 518 agents from garden-variety criminal cases to terrorism, centralizing oversight of field offices, and bolstering the FBI's intelligence-analysis capacity.

This reorganization repositioned the FBI to lay claim to domestic responsibility for terrorism prevention. At a lunch with reporters in January of this year, Mueller was asked, "Who's in charge?" His answer: "If [something] is in the U.S. and it is related to terrorism somehow, we are." But, in fact, federal law now gives that responsibility to the secretary of Homeland Security. Questions within the administration over who's really in charge have yet to be resolved. As one person close to the administration noted, "The president doesn't do that kind of conflict resolution."

If anything, Bush has blurred the lines of responsibility. For example, in his 2003 State of the Union address, less than two months before the Homeland Security Department was to open for business, he announced the creation of yet another terrorism-fighting entity: the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. TTIC (pronounced "tea-tick") was to be -- and now is -- a joint venture of the CIA, the FBI, the Homeland Security Department, and state and local law enforcement, with a mandate to fuse and analyze terrorism-related threat information. Folks at the soon-to-be Homeland Security Department were confused by Bush's announcement: Wasn't that supposed to be their job?

Homeland Security was being dismantled even as it was being built.

Who's in Charge?

On offense, there's no question who's in charge of coordinating the post-9/11 war on terrorism: Condoleezza Rice. But one new department, two new fusion centers, one PATRIOT Act, and countless agency reorganizations later, no one's clearly in charge of defense.

Supporters of the administration, like Frank Cilluffo, who was a top aide to Ridge at the White House, say the White House is giving the department what it needs "to fulfill its mission," but they acknowledge that the war in Iraq and the president's re-election campaign are sapping some White House energy.

Ridge often likens his department to the product of a major corporate merger. Management gurus say that in the first year after a merger, it's important for leaders to focus on a few clear priorities. Within the federal government, it's OMB's job to ensure that that happens. It didn't happen at Homeland Security.

Homeland-defense and management experts, such as Randall Yim of the General Accounting Office, say the administration's overriding charge to the department should have been to identify the nation's greatest vulnerabilities. That assignment would have focused every subdivision of the department on one task and forced them to cooperate. Now, more than a year after its debut, the department promises to have finally completed an assessment of the nation's most serious vulnerabilities by December -- just after the election.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security's authority continues to erode. First, TTIC and the FBI encroached on its turf. Now the Transportation Department is asserting itself on highway and rail security. The Defense Department has launched its own domestic intelligence wing, and its U.S. Northern Command is building up many of the same capabilities, including vulnerability assessments, as Homeland Security -- with little if any consultation between the two.

Homeland Security is fractured into warring fiefdoms -- a competition that's hindering internal intelligence-sharing, between, the Customs and Border Security agency and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement counterpart, for example. And FEMA often freelances without telling top department management what it's up to. The department hasn't even been able to establish an integrated network of field representatives, because each undersecretary already has representatives out there and doesn't want to give them up.

Meanwhile, the White House has thrust upon the department a number of Bush loyalists who have no background in security issues or management, according to several people who work closely with the department. Staff turnover has been debilitating. The deputy secretary left after less than a year. The chief financial officer quit. Since November, the office responsible for the National Capitol Region has had no leader. The top intelligence officer at the Transportation Security Administration left early this year.

Ridge has fervently argued in previous interviews with National Journal that his department is making good progress and that it is more important to do things right than to do them quickly. And Ridge's ex-aide Cilluffo says, "I do think the department is moving along."

But critics say the department's bureaucracy is already calcifying, making real change even more difficult. "The department is sliding" backward, contends one administration insider. "What will happen is, if there's a huge [terrorist] incident, they'll find the department does not have the authority to accomplish the mission they had assigned to it. That'll be the [subject of the] next 9/11 commission."

National Journal asked a dozen outside experts to assess the progress of the department's key anti-terror programs. The ad hoc panel gave its highest marks to aviation security and the PATRIOT Act. Nuclear plant security and efforts to merge border agencies got respectable grades, too. Programs to merge government "watch" lists got much-worse grades, though, as did efforts to secure chemical plants and railways.

At the FBI, Mueller has established a clear anti-terrorism game plan, but there's no real evidence to suggest that the troops in the field are following it. And the FBI's top technology project, the Virtual Case File, which is a glorified word-processing program that computerizes agency records, is over budget and more than a year behind schedule. Even as the FBI touts its new ability to produce homeland-security intelligence reports, National Security Council officials still see the FBI as "an information black hole," according to one source close to the NSC. And the FBI is on its fourth counter-terrorism chief since the 9/11 attacks.

Insiders are quick to identify bright spots within the generally bleak homeland-defense picture. They point to Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security James Loy, who oversaw a successful overhaul of the Coast Guard and is respected throughout the department, and to the FBI's Maureen Baginski, who heads the bureau's new office of intelligence.

But many observers fear that the Bush administration has simply spread American resources -- and its own attention -- too thin in the aftermath of 9/11. Flynn, for example, worries that the White House will find it impossible to simultaneously monitor security problems in Iraq and back home. And a number of homeland experts point to the $123 billion that the United States has already spent on the war with Iraq and wonder what that "war on terrorism" money might have bought had it been spent closer to home. Would we now be able to thoroughly inspect air cargo or shipments to U.S. seaports? Would federal agencies be working from a unified list of suspected terrorists? Would Qaeda cells still be embedded in the United States? No one can know for sure how the defense side of the war on terrorism might have been strengthened if the Bush White House had had different priorities.

One thing is clear, though. At the highest levels of this administration, terrorism continues to be perceived as a problem to be fought primarily "over there."

Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report.