Editor’s Notebook: The campaign ahead needs presidential leadership

We knew, here in Washington, that danger was at hand long before Sept. 11. We knew that our government was not prepared. We knew that preparation would entail hard work and more money and politics beyond the partisan. But in our deep suspicion of government, in our determination to shrink it, not to spend a penny more of our money on it than absolutely necessary, in our reluctance to tackle political obstacles, we overlooked the warnings and did too little.

It is too late to save the lives we have lost or to avoid the damage inflicted on our premier city, our military's headquarters and our sense of security and confidence. But in the aftermath of the tragedy, there is opportunity to pull together as a people and to recognize anew that only a strong public sector can meet the challenges that confront us at home and abroad.

The opportunity is evident in polling data showing a surge in support for government, and in smaller indicators: CIA retirees volunteering in record numbers to return to help and many more young people than usual applying to join the CIA and the military. President Bush caught the spirit, and contributed to it, with his visits to CIA workers at their Langley, Va., offices, Federal Emergency Management Agency employees in Washington and firefighters, police and other rescue workers at ground zero in New York. He must do more, for the opportunity is at hand-and the need compelling-for presidential leadership that would commit the nation to strengthening its central government's capabilities and call its citizens to public service.

"Strong and consistent presidential commitment [to] a national campaign to reinvigorate and enhance the prestige of service to the nation" is one important recommendation made earlier this year by the Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman. The Hart-Rudman commission was among those who sounded the alarm about the terrorist threat-and its report outlined an ambitious program of reform to enhance the nation's security.

"A direct, catastrophic attack against American citizens on American soil is likely," the report warned. "The risk is not only death and destruction but also a demoralization that could undermine U.S. global leadership." Last year, a similar warning came from the congressionally chartered National Commission on Terrorism. Transnational networks of terrorists, fueled by religious or ideological fervor and united in their hatred of the United States, would seek to inflict casualties so massive as to undermine "our constitutional system of government," the commission predicted.

In 1999, former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and former Assistant Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter sounded similarly dire warnings in their book, Preventive Defense: "Even though an instance of catastrophic terrorism has not yet occurred, such an event seems inevitable. . . . Like the attack on Pearl Harbor, it would divide our past and future into 'before' and 'after.' The effort and resources we have so far devoted to averting or containing this threat now, in the period 'before,' would seem woefully inadequate when viewed with hindsight after an incident of catastrophic terrorism."

These warnings, once seen as shrill and alarmist by some, now seem prescient. And as Perry and Carter predicted, the resources devoted to the threat are now seen by government leaders as inadequate to the task.

So far as can be seen now, the story is playing out in three phases. The first centers on the incident itself, and the immediate response of our government and our fellow citizens to the terror and the tragedy. Government Executive attempted, in our October issue, to describe the huge scope of the response mounted by government agencies in the first week after the attacks.

The second phase centers on the U.S. military response-deployment of carrier task forces and other units abroad and activation of thousands of National Guard troops-and rapid policy initiatives, including more than $50 billion in newly authorized spending and significant changes in criminal justice statutes designed to give law enforcement better tools for detecting and interdicting terrorist plots.

The third phase, one that will stretch on for months and years, will test the resolve of this country to undertake the institutional reforms and the budget and policy changes that could offer a more secure future. Such changes will entail more government, not less, and presidential leadership to make the case before a skeptical public and an ossified Congress.

For many years, politicians and the media have painted a portrait of government as run by a bunch of bumblers who can't make all those ineffective, overlapping, duplicative, fraud-prone programs run right. "Government is the enemy," said Republican Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. Democrat Bill Clinton 15 years later appeared to have thrown in the towel when he declared, "the era of big government is over."

The truth was that big government was still alive, but subsisting on a prisoner-of-war diet that sapped much of its energy. Programs and agencies were never put out of their misery but they also weren't given the resources-budget, staff, technology, training-to perform up to par. Nor were they placed in an organizational scheme that made sense: Agencies were assigned conflicting missions and given precious little incentive to cooperate.

Congress and the country can tolerate such disarray in the domestic functions of government. But after Sept. 11, we cannot tolerate it where national security is concerned. And there is no bright line separating the two. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has assumed an unaccustomed place in the spotlight in recent weeks, exposing the conflicts in its assignments: keeping wrongdoers out while easing border passage for the huge majority of law-abiding travelers. Media organizations made much of the INS' decision not to focus resources on tracking down and catching people who have overstayed their visas. But before Sept. 11, no one wanted the INS to be the heavy-handed cop in immigrant neighborhoods, where it is easy for fugitives to hide.

The Customs Service, which shares border inspection duties with the INS, suffers from similar problems. Its missions conflict: Interdicting contraband is one assignment, but facilitating trade by easing the flow of goods across our borders is another. Customs inspects less than 2 percent of goods coming into the United States.

And little communication exists between these two agencies where it counts-on the borders. Border Patrol agents and Customs agents often work side by side, in a position to share information about suspicious items or people. But they usually don't, constrained by rules and technology flaws that prevent them from helping one another.

Conflicts of interest inherent in the charter of the Federal Aviation Administration are also in the spotlight now in the wake of the tragedy. Recommendations for stronger safety measures to protect civil aviation were made to FAA leaders, but the agency's mission includes not just safety but also promotion of air travel, and the commercial airline companies resisted expensive new measures to improve safety. The airlines' influence has posed a challenge to policy-makers considering whether the FAA should be given added responsibility for overseeing the airport security workforce.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs may be one of the State Department's stronger units, and its leader, Mary Ryan, has received good reviews for improvements she has spearheaded there, but the bureau suffers from the kinds of resource shortages found throughout most of government. Although tourists from France, Great Britain and 27 other countries no longer need visas to get into the United States, visa applications have been growing rapidly in recent years, up to nearly 10 million last year. Because staffing levels are often inadequate, visa officers at high-volume posts must interview as many as 200 applicants a day, making final decisions on the spot. The bureau got a cash infusion after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, but only enough to install modern systems at six posts a year, out of 200 worldwide.

All four of these agencies are important in the anti-terrorism battle, but all four rank well below average in management capacity studies performed by Government Executive in cooperation with Syracuse and The George Washington universities. This Federal Performance Report assigned grades of C to each, except for INS, which received a C minus. Only one other agency-the Bureau of Indian Affairs-ranked lower in a three-year project that has assigned grades averaging B minus to 27 agencies.

Notably, the grading project assesses how well agencies are managed given their current resources. Many need more, as our articles have said. And that is true of other agencies on the front lines of the terrorism response, including the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard received an A for its meticulous strategic planning and good management, even though its fleet is older than all but two of the world's 41 major fleets.

Five years ago this month, in an article about the Defense Intelligence Agency, Government Executive reported troubling shortages of qualified intelligence analysts, who require years of training and experience. An article published in September about the National Security Agency repeated the refrain, as NSA director Michael Hayden warned that the agency hasn't come to grips with the information revolution and is short of staff versed in the latest technologies. Encouragingly, these sorts of once-obscure problems-the FBI's outdated computers, the intelligence agencies' shortage of foreign linguists-have suddenly become front-page news in American newspapers.

The problems in the public service are the result of many years' denigration of government. It will take years to repair the damage. But now is the time to start, and President Bush must lead the way.

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