Lieberman: Bush Record on Homeland Security is Weak

WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Friday told Secretary of Homeland Defense nominee Tom Ridge that the Bush Administration’s record so far on homeland security has fallen short of expectations.

“It is unacceptable that we have not come further faster,” Lieberman said. “The Administration’s record on homeland defense thus far has been too weak; its vision too blurry; and its willingness to confront the status quo has been too cautious. I must say that the Administration’s homeland security efforts thus far have left much to be desired and leave much to be done – quickly.”

Following is Lieberman’s statement: Today we open historic confirmation hearings that I hope will mark the beginning of a new era of responsibility and readiness for America’s domestic defenses. Sixteen months ago, America and the world changed forever. September 11, 2001, will not only be remembered in history as the single worst attack on American civilians in our history. It will also be remembered as the most catastrophic breakdown ever in America’s homeland security. The attacks revealed that just about every link in our security chain, public and private – from intelligence analysis to border and transportation security—was either broken or brittle.

The establishment of a Department of Homeland Security is the critical first big step forward in our homeland defense. It will consolidate more than two dozen agencies and offices, and organize them in a logical, accountable, and strong chain of command. And at the top of the agency, we will have a single cabinet secretary with budget authority who will be responsible to the Congress and to the people.

Governor Ridge, I know you appreciate the enormity of the task ahead of you, and I appreciate your willingness to accept this challenge. You will oversee and direct the largest federal government reorganization since the 1940s—which is both a tremendous opportunity and a sobering responsibility. And you must make this happen not before the crisis, but in its midst, so it must be done urgently.

Let me say for my part that—as one who fought for the new Department for more than a year—I will do everything I can to support your efforts. I will do everything I can to ensure that the Department has the resources and the support it demands and deserves, because this is the most urgent responsibility has today. We in the Congress have historically managed to elevate support for our armed services above partisan politics, and must do the same now for homeland security. We in Congress need to oversee the organization, the long-term strategy, and the day-to-day operations of the Department.

Congress must carefully scrutinize what you inside the Department do and how you do it. That is our obligation to the American people. I have never been under the illusion that reorganization itself would, by itself, be the solution to our homeland security challenges. Yes, we need the right structure to effectively accomplish anything—but having the right structure is no guarantee of success. We also need the right people, policies, and programs, and the resources to enable and empower them. And in this area, I must say that the Administration’s homeland security efforts thus far have left much to be desired and leave much to be done quickly.

This is not only my personal judgment. Almost every independent assessment I have seen says that in almost every way, America is as vulnerable today as we were on September 11th. The most persuasive of these, in my view, was produced by Former Senators Hart and Rudman—the men who, long before September 11th, were calling for our government to reshape itself to better guard against the threat of terrorism.

Senators Hart and Rudman headed another task force, which released its report last September. I quote: “America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil. In all likelihood, the next attack will result in even greater casualties and widespread disruption to American lives and the economy.” The facts are that:

  • Our local and state law enforcement officials are operating in a virtual intelligence vacuum—with no access to the terrorist watch lists that the State Department provides to our immigration and consular officials. In the words of the Hart-Rudman report, when it comes to combating terrorism, “the police officers on the beat are effectively operating deaf, dumb, and blind.” In my view, the Administration has taken only very small steps at best to fix this problem;
  • Containers, ships, trucks and trains entering the United States over our borders and through our ports are subject to hardly any examination. Of the 21,000 shipping containers that come through our ports every day, no more than 2 percent—that’s about 400—are inspected. The Administration has begun to address this problem, but we remain dangerously at risk;
  • Our first responders are unprepared for potential chemical or biological attacks. They lack the necessary training, and their communications systems are in most cases incompatible with one another. Again, I know the Administration has talked about fixing this problem, but the solutions and the resources have not yet been seen yet;
  • The National Guard is still oriented to support conventional combat units overseas, but we can and must make much greater use of their effectiveness and expertise here at home. I have offered a plan for how our country can make better use of the National Guard for homeland defense.
  • We still lack effective vaccines and medicines to counter the vast majority of biological and chemical weapons. I have put forward comprehensive legislation to spur the private sector development of these countermeasures. Despite our attempts to interest the Administration in this solution to an urgent need, so far, we have had no response. It is unacceptable that we have not come further faster.
  • The Administration’s record on homeland defense thus far has been too weak; its vision too blurry; and its willingness to confront the status quo too cautious. Bureaucratic inertia is a powerful force. That’s why the Homeland Security Act which we passed and the President signed needs to be implemented boldly and aggressively. Bureaucratic turf needs to be ripped up.

    Governor Ridge, upon being appointed the President’s Homeland Security Advisor last October, you yourself said, “The only turf we should be worried about protecting is the turf we stand on.”

    However, I am not yet convinced that the Administration is prepared to live up to that rhetorical statement. Let me give you one crucial example of an area in which a reactive rather than proactive mindset is producing serious problems: intelligence collection, dissemination, and analysis. We know that the failure of our intelligence agencies to connect the dots on September 11th was the single greatest error among many glaring failures of our homeland security systems. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration has thus far failed to challenge or change the status quo of the intelligence community to fix what is broken.

    On paper, the passage of the new Homeland Security Act has ushered in a new era. The bill creates a single all-source information analysis and infrastructure protection unit within the new Department. We had a lot of discussion and debate over the roles and responsibilities of this new unit—would it be focused only on protecting critical infrastructure, or would it be designed to help do what we didn’t do before 9/11, namely “connect the dots” to prevent attacks before they occur. In the end we had to compromise: it would do both.

    But I am very disturbed by indications that the Administration still believes the primary responsibility of the new Department’s intelligence unit is to protect critical infrastructure, and that performing analysis to prevent attacks is peripheral. The fact is, we can imagine horrific terrorist attacks that are not against critical infrastructure but against people—a bomb in a shopping mall or a biological agent dropped from overhead onto city streets. It makes no sense for the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence division to put on critical infrastructure blinders rather than assessing and processing all information related to terrorist attacks against Americans here at home. I am also disturbed that the Administration is not acting aggressively to break down existing barriers to getting the necessary intelligence information to the new Department.

    The assumption in the Homeland Security Act is that unless this President or future Presidents determine otherwise, all FBI, CIA, and other government information about terrorist threats, including so-called “unevaluated intelligence” possessed by intelligence agencies, will be routinely shared with this new unit. Unfortunately, there are early signs—reported upon in The Washington Post on December 6 of last year—that the Administration is acceding to the intelligence community’s predictable resistance to the law, and undermining ithese provisions rather than implementing them faithfully.

    This is a deeply disturbing development that demands clarification by Governor Ridge.

    Second, let me say a few words about the critical problem of insufficient funding. We have dozens of federal agencies—including many that are being consolidated into the new Department of Homeland Security—that are in the midst of urgent work post-September 11th. The Coast Guard, Border Patrol and others need to train their employees and invest in new technology. They need to pay bills for expensive investments they have already made. But this Administration isn’t providing them with the necessary funding. Indeed, just yesterday on the Senate floor, the Republican leadership shortchanged homeland security by nearly $1 billion compared to what Senate appropriators agreed to last Congress. As a result, now $627 million isn’t being provided to the INS, which is becoming part of the new Department, for a variety of critical border security measures. Local first responders are being underfunded by $132 million. And the list goes on.

    The problem is even more pressing at the local level. Local and state first responders—who are also our first preventers of terrorism—are not getting the support they need, despite promise after promise from the Administration. Late last year, the President inexplicably blocked $2.5 billion in emergency spending that could have gone to federal agencies and state and local officials for their homeland security efforts. That was wrong. In fact, the Administration has not even done all it can to speed disbursement of the money that has already been appropriated.

    Governor Ridge, you know as well as I that this war on terrorism cannot be won with a magic wand or wishful thinking. It will take strong leadership and a lot of money. It will take talent, training, and technology. It will take real, not rhetorical, partnership among every layer and level of government. It will take a clear vision and a consistent attention to achieving the goals outlined in that vision. And it will take tireless effort on the part of thousands of federal employees who will report to you. All this will soon fall on your broad shoulders, and so too will the responsibility to be a vigorous advocate with the Administration for adequate resources for homeland security—from the President you serve on behalf of, and the nation you and we both must protect. Thank you.