Homeland Security Flunks

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In Slate today, Tim Naftali recalls a few 40-year-old lessons that the Bush administration might have done well to take to heart:

The response to Katrina thus far indicates two flaws in the Bush administration’s thinking about homeland security. The federal government hasn’t learned how to plan for a tragedy that demands putting a city on sustained life-support, as opposed to a one-moment-in-time attack that requires recovering the dead and injured from debris and then quickly rebuilding. And DHS appears unwilling to plan for the early use of the U.S. military to cope with a civilian tragedy. Presidential administrations have perennially underestimated the difficulty of the latter task. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy’s top aide, Kenneth O’Donnell, thought it would be easy to deploy troops rapidly to defend James Meredith when he was attacked by segregationists while trying to enroll as the University of Mississippi’s first black student. “If the President of the United States calls up and says, ‘Get your ass down there,’ ” O’Donnell said, “I would think they’d be on a fucking plane in about five minutes.” Kennedy made that call. But then, in spite of O’Donnell’s prediction, he watched in frustration as the army dithered for hours before deploying to Oxford, Miss.

The Kennedy administration thus learned that the army must be told in advance what to do. As a matter of law and preference, the military does little training for domestic missions. It balks and mutters about posse comitatus, the legal principle that prohibits the use of the army for law enforcement, and leaves the hard work for the National Guard and state and local authorities. This has made sense most of the time. But in an era when we are supposed to be better prepared for an urban disaster, the tradition of allowing local and state authorities to be overwhelmed before the federal government and military step in should have been rethought.

In the abstract, of course, there are hard questions to ask about the scope and limit of deploying federal troops on domestic soil. Obviously the time for those questions isn’t right this instant, but it’s appalling that no one’s spent time figuring any of this out before now—especially when it was known for 40 years that the military takes a long time to deploy for civilian tragedies. And yes, as I said yesterday, now is the time for finger-pointing. Matthew Yglesias makes a similar argument today at Tapped, noting that the only thing that motivates politicians to put down the pork barrel and start looking at practical solutions to actual problems is fear. Now is certainly the time to make our elected officials fear for their political lives unless they do something.

On the other hand, a politician frantically trying to appear like he or she is “doing something” always overdoes it, and as with Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the multi-billion dollar relief efforts Congress has just authorizing will probably end up stuffed with corporate handouts and political favors. It won’t be pretty. The same thing happened after 9/11, when Congress reacted to the bloodiest day in American history by setting up a Department of Homeland Security that was a boon for contractors, but mostly useless (as we’re now seeing) and presented the Republican Party an opportunity to do a little union-busting. Nevertheless, an imperfect process is better than no process at all, and hopefully all the current outrage at the federal government—and especially at a White House that has gutted FEMA—will spur people to take disasters a little more seriously.


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