Saturday, September 11, 2004

On Homeland Security, Bush's Words Speak Louder Than Actions

Today marks the third anniversary of 9/11, and several of the news channels have decided to offer progress reports, generally with titles like "How Safe Are We?"

My question to the various reporters: Where have you been throughout this campaign?

President Bush repeats We're safer, over and over -- Jon Stewart counted 23 references in one day's worth of campaign speeches -- as if saying something enough will make it come true. The administration has offered the illogical argument that we're safer because we've taken the battle overseas, but that we should be aware that Al Qaeda could strike us at any moment this campaign season.

But of course, there's always been a lack of logic in our "war on terror." We struck Iraq, which the Bush administration knew had no ties to 9/11, even though it had not finished the job against Al Qaeda. We're safer, Bush says, even though Osama Bin Laden remains at large, and Al Qaeda has committed some 25 terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens on foreign soil, NATO allies such as Spain and Turkey, and other nations.

In spite of this apparent lack of logic, the media has passively reported Bush's rallying cry, acting more like stenographers than journalists. We're safer, he says, and the media moves on, to discuss whether John Kerry really deserved his Purple Hearts. The media takes Dennis Miller's mantra -- he said he'd give Bush "a pass" -- perhaps because of his "strength" and "decisivenss," or maybe because he just poses as strong and decisive because he repeats himself so often.

The media's take isn't to fact-check statements made by the president. It's to take polls asking whether people expect another terrorist attack, or to try to gauge how afraid the average American is. The only effort to fact-check comes in the famed panel discussion, where the designated liberal is allowed to get into a shouting match with the designated conservative -- and the viewers are left scratching their heads.

***

There are actual issues being discussed this campaign season, mostly by John Kerry and John Edwards. Listen to their speeches, and you'll hear that they've done their homework about what needs to be changed in order to make us truly safe.

They no doubt have read at least a few of the several dozen reports out there about how little the Bush administration has done since 9/11 to make us safer. How Bush -- who initially fought the creation of the Department of Homeland Security -- has subsequently underfunded it. How several of the administration's high-profile domestic anti-terror arrests have subsequently been released, or the charges against them reduced -- add fuel to the critics of John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge, who have claimed that those two champion high-profile press conferences, but have been miserable failures in their jobs.

Here are a few issues the media -- following the lead of the Bush administration -- has generally ignored:

-- According to a GAO report, the administration has underfunded maritime security, putting at risk hundreds of thousands who live near ports. A Coast Guard report projects the cost of implementing safety regulations laid out by Congress at $7.3 billion over the next 10 years. The Bush administration has funded $441 million and Bush's FY 2005 budget proposes spending $46 million.

The GAO also reports that the Bush administration has allocated just $100 million for train security -- significantly less than the amount needed to safeguard shipments of hazardous materials, let alone protect passengers. How much is $100 million? It's what we spend in eight hours in fighting the war in Iraq.

-- The Department of Homeland Security has not established a strategy for tracking down illegal immigrants, or deporting people who remain beyond the conditions of their stay. You may recall that the U.S. recently arrested a suspected terrorist who had come into the country illegally via Mexico. Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton said, "We need secure borders with heightened and uniformed standards of identification for those entering and exiting the country, and an immigration system able to be efficient, allowing good people in while keeping the terrorists out."

-- In terms of law enforcement, the Bush administration's FY 2005 budget calls for a 31.9% decrease in funding. Foreign Affairs reports that on average, "U.S. fire departments have only enough radios to equip half their firefighters on a shift, and breathing apparatus for only a third. Police departments in cities across the country do not have the protective gear to safely secure a site following a WMD attack. And most emergency medical technicians lack the tools to determine which chemical or biological agent may have been used."

And of course, as has been widely reported this week, Bush is unlikely to pass an extension of the assault weapons ban, which was supported by Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton. Starting next week, a would-be terrorist can go into a gun show -- where there are no background checks -- and buy an assault weapon and ammunition. Police officers universally back extending the ban.

Officially, Bush says he'd sign the extension if it came to his desk. This is pure showmanship. He has done nothing to move it along. And the Republican leadership, led by Sen. Bill Frist and Rep. Tom DeLay, has made it clear that they have no plans to move forward. Somewhere, Wayne LaPierre is smiling.

-- How about loose nukes? A recent Harvard University report said that "less fissile materials were secured in the two years after 9/11 than in the two years before." The administration has spent $200 billion on Iraq, but just $2 billion securing nuclear bomb materials -- materials the administration has suggested Al Qaeda continues to seek.

***

We're safer, Bush says, and the partisan, hand-picked, swing-state crowds cheer. John Edwards talks about loose nukes in most of his campaign stops, and the media yawns. Where is John Edwards? Is he still campaigning? Watch the evening news, and you'd never know.

Although the administration would like us to forget this fact, 9/11 happened under Bush's watch. And although conservatives want to pin the blame on the Clinton administration, the 9/11 Commission found that the Bush team not only failed to make Al Qaeda a priority, but ignored multiple warning signs that an attack was being planned.

So three years later, we're fighting a costly war in Iraq, a county that did not attack us, had no ties to 9/11 and, pre-war, was less of a breeding ground for terrorists several other nations, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Al Qaeda still exists, and in many ways, thrives. Osama Bin Laden -- who Bush throughout 2001 said would be caught "dead or alive" -- was mentioned one time at the Republican National Convention (or one fewer time than Richard Nixon.)

But as long as Bush keeps saying We're safer instead of taking action -- and the media sits on its hands rather than growing a spine -- we're anything but.

David




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