The Republic of T.

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Bush Has Not Kept Us Safe

After the previous post, it seems appropriate to move delusion to delusion. So, let’s look into the case of Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan. In what world does Peggy Noonan reside? And what color is the sky there?

I ask because, though capable of surprising moments of clarity (which I hope to get to in a another post), her latest WSJ column sounds like a dispatch from the mental space to which Noonan decamped during the Clinton years, a place I’ve wondered about since her bid to let dolphins determine child custody and immigration policy — somewhere unrelated to the world I’ve been reading about in the headlines lately.

Having been spared the job of defending a McCain Palin administration, Noonan exhales and then begins breathlessly setting up the necessary rhetoric to blame the Obama administration for whatever eight years of the Bush administration’s malignant neglect has left us vulnerable to. And that’s quite a lot.

From the suburbs of Northern Virginia, Noonan drifts through a Republican Xmas party, lingers with a handsome (unnamed) former Republican senator, jets over to Russia in one paragraph, touches down in Northern Virginia in the next, and then, strangely for a column entitled “At Least Bush Kept Us Safe,” she cites several reports which suggest that he hasn’t, and that if anything we’re less safe than we were when he took office.

Why does Congress prepare such reports? To inform, and to win support for new plans. To show they are doing something. And to be able to say, in the event of calamity—forgive my cynicism—that they warned us. This hasn’t been the first such report. It won’t be the last. But it comes at a key moment for Mr. Obama, because it gives him a certain amount of cover to be serious about what needs to be done. What’s at stake for him is two words. When Republicans say, in coming years, “At least Bush kept us safe,” Democrats will not want tacked onto the end of that sentence, “unlike Obama.”

By the way, he should both reorder the Department of Homeland Security, that hopeless bureaucracy, and change its name. Homeland is a Nazi-ish word, not an American concept at all. And at this point “Homeland Security” is associated more with pointless harassment than safety. No one knows who came up with it. Probably some guy with two Christmas trees in Northern Virginia.

The reports Noonan mentions are only the latest that ought to make anyone who stops and thinks about wonder what a president and an administration declared to be so serious about the security of the country have been doing for the past eight years. Somehow it doesn’t occur to her to ask, if Bush has “at least” kept us safe, how is it that we can expect a biological or nuclear attack by 2013?

The United States can expect a terrorist attack using nuclear or more likely biological weapons before 2013, reports a bipartisan commission in a study being briefed Tuesday to Vice President-elect Joe Biden.

The report suggests the Obama administration bolster efforts to counter and prepare for germ warfare by terrorists.

“Our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing,” reads the report, obtained by The Associated Press. It is scheduled to be released publicly on Wednesday.

The commission is also encouraging the new White House to appoint one official on the National Security Council to exclusively coordinate U.S. intelligence and foreign policy on combating the spread of nuclear and biological weapons.

…”They really have no idea where they are,” said Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information who has studied small-arms trade and received Pentagon briefings on the issue. “It likely means that the United States is unintentionally providing weapons to bad actors.”

President-elect Obama has heeded the commission’s recommendations, and will appoint a WMD czar. Why this would be a “significant break” with a president and an administration that has “kept us safe”?

Naming a top deputy whose sole mission is to oversee the government’s wide-ranging programs to stop such an attack would mark a significant break with the Bush administration, which in resisting such a post has maintained that US efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles and safeguard deadly pathogens are adequate.

A law requiring the position, passed by Congress more than a year ago and signed into law by President Bush, has been ignored for more than 15 months, in part because Bush opposes giving the Senate the power to confirm the official.

But Obama, whose first foreign trip as a US senator was to assess initiatives to lock down nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, believes the programs lack coordination, are underfunded, and need a top official supervising them, according to three advisers with knowledge of the transition team’s deliberations.

“I think it is a good idea and will probably happen” soon after Obama is sworn in Jan. 20, said one of those advisers, who asked not to be identified discussing private conversations with the president-elect.

This isn’t’ the first report that says we’re dangerously vulnerable to WMDs. The February 2007 GAO found that the military was understaffed and unprepared for chemical or biological attacks.

The reports are by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative agency, which is typically careful in its language. (Consider the title of one report, the modestly named Management Actions Are Needed to Close the Gap between Army Chemical Unit Preparedness and Stated National Priorities.) But reading between the lines it’s clear that investigators, who analyzed preparedness data for 78 Army chemical units, were disturbed at what they found. As one report put it, “Most Army units tasked with providing chemical and biological defense support are not adequately staffed, equipped, or trained to perform their missions.”

Particularly in the National Guard and Army Reserve–key to any U.S. homeland response–chem and bio units “are reporting the lowest readiness ratings–meaning that they are not considered sufficiently qualified for deployment,” according to the GAO. The reason: critical shortages of trained personnel and key equipment, made worse by transfers to support the war in Iraq.

The bottom line, says the report, is that until the Army develops a plan to address the shortfalls, “adequate chemical defense forces may not be available in the event of a WMD attack at home or abroad.”

…All this might have been forgivable in the months after 9/11. But since then, Pentagon funding for chem and bio defense has doubled, and planning for WMD response has become a top priority. So why the disconnect?

Bush ignored a law that he signed? A law to appoint someone in charge of plans and programs to stop biological or nuclear attacks? Attacks of the kind the Bush administration said over and over again were bound to happen any minute if we didn’t go to war with Iraq? The Bush administration has had since February 2007 to act on the GAO report, and we still aren’t any safer from WMD attacks than we were in 2007? (Or 2003, for that matter?)

How is that keeping us safe?

In July of this year, the GAO reported that the government — that is, the Bush administration — has been lax in securing radioactive material, the kind that could be used in the attacks mentioned above. In fact, the GAO reported that the new requirements to ensure that a person carrying radioactive materials has reason to do so are three years behind schedule. Investigators set up a bogus company and were able to get a license from the Nuclear Regulatory System allowing them to buy enough radio active material for a dirty bomb.

In February, the Senate demanded the Air Force fix the problems that led to a B-52 bomber crew flying from North Dakota to Louisiana with six cruise missiles that were carrying nuclear warheads the crew didn’t know were there.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday insisted that the Air Force fix what Defense Department officials described as the U.S. military’s loss of focus in safeguarding its nuclear weapons.

Senators from both parties demanded answers about an incident last August in which a B-52 bomber flew from an air base in North Dakota to one in Louisiana with six cruise missiles onboard that the crew did not know were carrying nuclear warheads, each with destructive power 10 times that of the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. It took 36 hours before anyone missed the weapons.

Defense Department officials told the panel the incident reflected a waning emphasis on nuclear-weapons procedures across the U.S. military but they insisted the stockpile is nonetheless secure. Committee Republicans, while acknowledging the seriousness of the incident, emphasized the weapons were not in a condition that would have allowed them to detonate.

But Democrats stressed that if military personnel do not know they are handling nuclear weapons, they are less likely to follow procedures designed to safeguard them from terrorists. And even if a warhead could not have exploded in a nuclear reaction, Democrats said, the potentially deadly plutonium inside might have scattered in an aircraft crash.

Going back to 2006, radioactive materials have been poorly managed, to the point that almost anyone can get enough to make a “dirty bomb”? Our nuclear arsenal is unguarded enough a bomber crew can fly from one state to another with nuclear warheads they don’t know they have?

How is this keeping us safe?

In May of this year, investigators found gaps in the Department of Homeland Security’s port security program; gaps big enough for terrorist groups to smuggle WMDs into the country in cargo containers. (The Bush administration, for its part, actually sought to cut anti-terror funds.

The report by the Government Accountability Office, being released Tuesday, assesses the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), a federal program established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to deter a potential terrorist strike via cargo passing through 326 of the nation’s airports, seaports and designated land borders.

Under the program, roughly 8,000 importers, port authorities and air, sea and land carriers are granted benefits such as reduced scrutiny of their cargo. In exchange, the companies submit a security plan that must meet U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s minimum standards and allow officials to verify their measures are being followed.

A 2005 GAO report found many of the companies were receiving the reduced cargo scrutiny without the required full vetting by U.S. Customs, a division of DHS. The agency has since made some improvements, but the new report found that Customs officials still couldn’t provide guarantees that companies were in compliance.

Security holes noted three years ago remained open earlier this year?

How is this keeping us safe?

Also in May of this year, we’ve heard that the FBI is “ill equipped” for a terrorist attack.

The FBI is “ill-equipped” to handle the current terror threat, an agent embroiled in a whistleblower case with the bureau, claimed to a congressional committee today.

“My greatest goal today is to be able to get the message across to Congress, to this distinguished committee, that the FBI’s counterterrorism division is ill-equipped to handle the terrorist threat that we’re facing,” Bassem Youssef told the House Judiciary subcommittee.

“We have agents who are highly dedicated within the counterterrorism division who want to do a very good job,” he continued. “But they’re unable to because they’re not given the tools or the assets that they need to actually understand the enemy.”

Youssef says the FBI counterterrorism program can’t protect the United States from another catastrophic direct attack from Middle Eastern terrorists because the bureau lacks the necessary resources, especially experienced counterterrorism experts who understand native languages and cultures throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.

Youssef said the FBI is “inexcusably understaffed” in its International Terrorism Operations Section (ITOS). According to Youssef’s testimony, the FBI’s staffing level, at its supervisory level, is only 62 percent of its mandated funded level.

Just this information, taken altogether, paints picture of the Bush administration keeping us anything but safe, and instead — through deliberate policy and through mismanagement — has created a reality in which WMDs are more of a threat than they were in 2003. And while there weren’t any WMDs found in Iraq, the policies of the Bush administration have actually provided would-be terrorists with access to the materials to make WMDs and gaps through which to bring them into the country.

And this is without even addressing other problems, like:

Pending her confirmation by the Senate, would-be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will inherit an “under-resourced” state department, poorly positioned to handle its growing responsibilities which — it seems to me, at least — are essential to our security, inasmuch as the state department acts as the diplomatic arm of the government.

“The next president and the next secretary come into office at a time when our economy is in recession, our military is tied down and our reputation is tarnished,” said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Diplomatic tools are arguably the one set of instruments that are available. It’s a natural moment for American diplomacy.”

But the past two years have brought a flurry of testimony and reports questioning the capacity of the U.S. government to carry out its foreign policy. They cite the relative underfunding of State Department personnel, especially compared with the resources that have poured into the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security in the years following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They have criticized State’s efforts to convey a positive U.S. image abroad. And they have questioned the training and readiness of the Foreign Service to carry out functions beyond traditional diplomacy, such as advising Third World governments on training police officers, setting up judicial systems and holding fair and free elections.

The secretary of state “lacks the tools — people, competencies, authorities, program and funding — to execute the President’s foreign policies,” according to a report last month from the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Henry L. Stimson Center.

“Today, significant portions of the nation’s foreign affairs business simply are not accomplished,” the study concluded. “The work migrates by default to the military that does have the necessary people and funding but neither sufficient experience nor knowledge.”

How is leaving the state department in a state of disarray, leaving it unable to effectively carry out foreign policy, keeping us safe? We’ve already seen in the Russia/Georgia conflict the first signs of a world where diplomacy moves right along without us.

How is this keeping us safe?

It’s not just the state department either. I posted just last month about government agencies left in disarray and government workers left demoralized in the wake of the Bush administration. Jonathan Stein at Mother Jones, goes even further, taking apart a GAO report that details “a federal bureaucracy that is rife with mismanagement, inefficiency, and faulty communication practices—all of this combining to jeopardize both the nation’s health and security.”

How is this keeping us safe?

Those federal agencies that are in disarray, and the demoralized employees working in them probably owe their state to a key flaw of conservatism, and one of its symptoms.

The past eight years have been a horror to many federal employees. The Bush administration has rarely missed an opportunity to criticize, cut and meddle, and it dismissed the notion that federal employees need more freedom to innovate and learn. As former vice president Al Gore rightly argued, federal employees are not the problem in poor performance. It is the bureaucracy in which they are trapped.

The Bush administration, however, decided that the best way to reform government was to outsource it. From 2001 to 2005, civilian employment remained at 1.8 million, more or less, while the estimated number of contractor jobs surged from 4.4 million to 7.6 million.

We’ve seen the results play out in Iraq, where the Pentagon has been criticized for over-reliance on contractors; where record numbers of contractors have cost hundreds of billions in tax dollars (amounting to one fifth of Iraq funding), including some $600 billion in cancelled contracts for projects that were cancelled due to shoddy work or mismanagement, and another $13 billion wasted or stolen in Iraq. Auditors sometimes go easy on contractors, especially if pressured from above to do so, instead of exposing wrongdoing over-billing, etc., and we end up paying $142 million for prisons, hospitals and police facilities that sit unfinished in iraq, and over $100 million for a water treatment plant that sits unfinished in Falluja.

How is this keeping us safe?

Before you answer, consider the consequences of all the above in Iraq itself, where the “flypaper theory” meant we were “fighting them over there to keep from fighting them over here.” As recently as October the Red Cross reported that conditions remain “dire” in Iraq.

The Red Cross is warning that despite some improvements in security in Iraq, the condition of the country’s infrastructure remains dire.

In a statement issued from their headquarters in Geneva, the Red Cross said it was particularly concerned about poor water supplies.

It estimates that over 40% of Iraq’s civilian population still has no access to clean mains water.

The organization says that the health of millions Iraqis is at risk.

Aside from that, Iraq is awash in weapons, since the country has become one of the United States biggest military sales customers, thanks to the Bush administration’s efforts. The problem is that those weapons quickly go “missing” and sometimes turn up in the hands of insurgents. Last August the GAO determined that 30% of the arms are unaccounted for.

The Pentagon has lost track of about 190,000 AK-47 assault rifles and pistols given to Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005, according to a new government report, raising fears that some of those weapons have fallen into the hands of insurgents fighting U.S. forces in Iraq.

The author of the report from the Government Accountability Office says U.S. military officials do not know what happened to 30 percent of the weapons the United States distributed to Iraqi forces from 2004 through early this year as part of an effort to train and equip the troops. The highest previous estimate of unaccounted-for weapons was 14,000, in a report issued last year by the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

The United States has spent $19.2 billion trying to develop Iraqi security forces since 2003, the GAO said, including at least $2.8 billion to buy and deliver equipment. But the GAO said weapons distribution was haphazard and rushed and failed to follow established procedures, particularly from 2004 to 2005, when security training was led by Gen. David H. Petraeus, who now commands all U.S. forces in Iraq.

Is it any surprise, then that we’ve spent over $6 billion on private security in Iraq?

How is this making Iraq — and us, since that was a huge part of the case for going to war — safer?

Consider that this is also a country where consultants — like the Blackwater security guards just indicted for manslaughter, or the KBR recruiters recently discovered to be warehousing workers from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Uganda — have operated with immunity from Iraqi laws. Immunity they stand to lose under a new U.S./Iraq security deal, which means that they could land in the same crowded Iraqi prisons that hold many innocent Iraqis.

How is this keeping us safe?

Other reports have shown that, as late as April of this year, the Bush administration had failed to develop a strategy to wipe out bin Laden’s Pakistan sanctuary. Thus analysts say al Qaeda is more secure and more potent than even a year ago.

How is this keeping us safe.

To borrow a turn of phrase from Noonan, to ride the bus or the subway in D.C. is to remember that the London bus bombings and the Madrid train bombings are not that far in the past. Already the Mumbai attacks have refocused cities on just what to do in the event of similar or worse circumstances. Safe as Noonan might feeling in her prosperous Northern Virginia suburb, but it is a false security, based on the reality that we haven’t had another attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, yet, and the assumption that a lack of any attacks mans that we have been kept safe.

That’s why I want to know what world Peggy Noonan lives in, because it’s one in which none of the above is true. It’s a world where the federal agencies charges with safeguarding the country and its citizens have all the resources they need to carry out their work. It’s a world in where our state department has all the resources and staff it needs to carry out the kind of work that improves international relations and prevents the kind of extremism that leads to terrorism from gaining a foothold.

It’s a world where sufficient planning has made us less vulnerable both to biological and other attacks, and better prepared for the aftermath of such an attack.

It’s a world where we’ve made sure that dangerous materials are safeguarded against falling into the hands of would-be terrorists.

It’s a world in which we’ve closed the gaps in security that might allow terrorists to smuggle “dirty bombs” into the country.

It’s a world where Iraq has not suffered all it has, and where hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have not been handed over to contractors unrestrained by oversight.

It’s a world where al Qaeda is not more secure and potent than they were even a year ago.

It’s not the real world, where the incoming administration faces the task of rebuilding and restoring what the Bush administration — and conservatism itself — either laid waste or let rot; where we can only hope the work will be done in time, because we are not now prepared.

My high school English teacher refused on principle to wish us luck on our exams.

“I don’t believe in luck, people,” he said. “Either you’re prepared or you’re not.”

As an adult, I understand what he meant in a way I didn’t then. Luck, if you have any, eventually runs out. When it does, you’d better be prepared to handle what luck doesn’t stick around for.

Being ready is far, far better than being lucky. We’ve been lucky, in the sense that we haven’t had an attack on American soil in the past eight years. But we are not ready if an attack should come.

Bush has not kept us safe, nor made us safer than we were.

He has left us unprepared.

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