By Guest Contributor John Solomon
Editor: In Case of Emergency, Read Blog
In his forthcoming book, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, warns about the U.S. becoming complacent and returning to a “September 10 mindset.” But he is equally cautionary about going too far in the other direction. “There are two opposite extremes that must be avoided,” he writes in the book, Homeland Security: Assessing the First Five Years (University of Pennsylvania Press), “one, hysteria and fear, and the other, complacency and almost blithe disregard of the threats we face.” In fact, much of the book attempts to find the right balance in policies and attitudes to keep the nation safe.
I was given the ‘uncorrected page proofs’ of the book this weekend at the 2009 Book Expo held here in New York City. It is scheduled to be released in September. (The former Secretary now runs a security and risk-management consulting firm, The Chertoff Group.)
In Homeland Security: Assessing the First Five Years, Chertoff offers substantive policy recommendations on a range of homeland security issues. Actually, the title sells the book a bit short. It is as much, if not more, prospective as retrospective. And he does so in a tone that is generally bipartisan and constructive.
The bipartisan approach is signaled from the beginning (former Democratic Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, wrote the book’s Foreword) and at the very end (the book’s final paragraph: “As my successor, Janet Napolitano, assumes the challenging task of protecting the homeland, it is my hope that when her tenure has ended, she will pass on to her successor an even stronger, better department, one that has served our country well.”)
Many of the themes he strikes in the book will be familiar to those who have followed Chertoff’s public statements during his time as Homeland Security Secretary. In fact, one of his major aims in writing the book seems to be to educate – and sometimes try to persuade – the public and in turn their elected representatives. (The decision to have a university press publish the book underscores that objective.) Chertoff argues throughout the book that the government needs to communicate with the citizenry early and often on homeland security issues.
I know Chertoff would readily acknowledge (and he did in a couple interviews I had with him last year) that he did not accomplish nearly as much as he might have liked in this particular area. There were a number of reasons, including a lack of trust between the government and much of the governed on homeland security (which began before Chertoff took over DHS but was exacerbated by the government’s response to Katrina) as well as a concern about being accused of scaring people by bringing up potentially frightening scenarios. I would also argue that there is not yet a clear consensus on how best to communicate these new and delicate preparedness issues (ie. how and how much to brief the public on WMD threats) that will educate and engage citizens in a useful and non-scary way. But the Obama Administration has the opportunity to start its public education and engagement efforts with a clean slate. And Chertoff clearly thinks they should take advantage of it.
“It seems that only when we crystallize a problem around an individual circumstance can we ensure the kind of emotional commitment that inspires people on every level to make the necessary and prudent investments to secure the nation,” Chertoff writes. “That is why frank discussion about past terrorist attacks is not, as some would claim, fear-mongering. Rather it is a necessary antidote to the inertia that arises when individuals do not want to be inconvenienced by the short-term impact of policies or programs that prevent further attacks from occurring.” He adds that future Administrations should be “candid with the American people, sharing as much information as possible about the dangers we face and the nature of our enemies.”
Chertoff raises important questions about bio-preparedness that have really yet to be discussed directly with the public (though the recent H1N1 flu did at least provoke some discussion), such as how to distribute medicine quickly, when to use isolation and quarantine as well as how businesses and schools should deal with those long-term distancing situations.
“It is essential that they be discussed and deliberated upon before, not after, a national emergency arises,” writes Chertoff. “Clearly the time to have thorough, candid and public conversations about these issues and tradeoffs is today, before anything happens tomorrow. This is true not only of legal matters, but also of every aspect of the threat and how we should respond.”
The target of much of Chertoff’s criticism in the book are interest groups he believes have worked against the nation’s overall homeland security interests. In a provocative chapter, “Why Washington Won’t Work?” Chertoff explains his frustration about the obstacles that the political system throws in the way of implementing long-term changes that benefit the whole nation but which might come at the expense of a smaller interest: “Measures designed to promote the general good of the country are countered by small but highly concentrated, well-organized activist groups that perceive their own individual interests to be adversely affected by new proposals or ideas.”
He continues: “Unfortunately, the predictable – yet perverse – result of success is that it has fostered the kind of complacency that enables structural obstacles to begin reasserting themselves. We seem to be turning back to business as usual, the way things were before 9/11.” As examples, Chertoff mentions the opposition from landowners in the Southwest to the construction of a fence on the Mexico border and the chemical industry’s resistance to security regulations on propane.
He also cites the unwillingness of local residents concerned about their views of Lake Pontchartrain to support the construction of a barrier, which would have allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to drop a steel gate to prevent surging water from entering the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. “The obvious question is why this barrier wasn’t in place years ago. Had it been there when Katrina came, the Corps would have dropped the gate, and an enormous amount of devastation could have been averted. In fact, a decade ago, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed precisely that at the canal. It was vociferously opposed by local residents who felt it would spoil their view of the lake, and by environmental groups concerned about its effect on the area’s ecology.”
Some other excerpts from the book:
- On how to address Muslim extremism: Chertoff believes the U.S should “combat the ideas that drive the terrorists” by pointing out the “connection between today’s extremists and their early and mid-twentieth-century intellectual cousins who advanced totalitarian ideologies such as communism and fascism.”
- On the failure to pass immigration reform: “We need to continue to show the American people that we can secure our borders, enforce the law, and protect and defend the homeland. If we do that there will come a time in the future where the public may trust the government to expand temporary immigration.”
- On the importance of using ‘soft power': “To prevail, we must not only work hard to prevent terrorists from attacking, but also expend equal effort to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place.” He adds: “In the battle of ideas, words matter. Good deeds, while crucial, are not enough. Actions can speak more loudly than words, but it would be sheer folly to neglect the power of words to explain our actions and defend our actions and defend our message.”
- On Risk: One of Chertoff’s priorities as Secretary was trying to inculcate more risk management principles into homeland security decision making and explaining that to the nation. He writes: “Eliminating every risk to the country’s infrastructure is impossible. If implemented, the kinds of security measures required to pursue such a strategy could destroy what we are trying to protect, namely, the normal, daily commerce of the United States.” Chertoff’s prime example is the effort by some in Congress to mandate that U.S. Customs officials to inspect every shipping container before it enters the country: “It could grind commerce to a halt, effectively handling the terrorists the victory they desire.” He believes that more the nation knows about the tradeoffs the better: “I believe strongly that the more informed they become, the more likely they will back sensible risk-based security measures.”
Since homeland security as a cabinet department and as a subject is so relatively new and some of the challenges are still unfamiliar, there is a real need to educate the nation. “Preparing by word and deed for the unthinkable is hardly a pleasant exercise, but if we engage in it today, we can prevent far greater harm from befalling us tomorrow. If we plan for the worst, we just might avoid some and maybe even all of it.”
Anyone interested in homeland security (and for that matter public policy) will find the 192-page book worth reading. Chertoff’s perspective – not only was he of one of three Homeland Security Secretaries in the nation’s history, but he also headed U.S. Justice Department’s Criminal Division post-9/11 and served as a federal judge – is unique.
“These are excruciatingly difficult questions with no perfect answers,” Chertoff writes. “The more thoughtful deliberations we have about them in advance, the better off we will be.” Homeland Security: Assessing The First Five Years makes a significant contribution to thoughtful deliberations towards answering those difficult questions.
John Solomon is the editor of the blog “In Case of Emergency, Read Blog” and is writing a book titled “In Case Of Emergency, Read Book: Simple Steps To Prepare You and Your Family For Terrorism, Natural Disasters and Other 21st Century Crises.”