America the Vulnerable: How Our Government Is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism

by | Sep 13, 2004

He’s filled with “a sense of dread that we continue to live on borrowed time,” is “frustrated by the sense of denial that pervades so many corners of the federal government,” and sees “a dangerous proclivity among U.S. officials to believe their own rhetoric about how progress they have been making on issues that require […]

He’s filled with “a sense of dread that we continue to live on borrowed time,” is “frustrated by the sense of denial that pervades so many corners of the federal government,” and sees “a dangerous proclivity among U.S. officials to believe their own rhetoric about how progress they have been making on issues that require reversing decades of neglect.”

Three years after the attack of September 11, that’s how Stephen Flynn concludes his new book “America the Vulnerable: How Our Government Is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism.”

Flynn served in the White House Military Office during the George H. W. Bush administration and was Director for Global Issues on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration. Currently, he’s the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Today, in spite of the wake-up call on September 11, 2001, and over a decade since the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, Flynn sees an America that has pulled the covers up over its head and fallen asleep. With the nation’s top policy makers focusing on military campaigns overseas and cobbling together measures domestically that are “hardly fit to deter amateur thieves, vandals and hackers, never mind determined terrorists,” Flynn argues that we’re “practically defenseless at home,” offering our enemies “a vast menu of soft targets” — chemical plants, energy grids, tunnels, ports, trains, refineries, trucks, pipelines, food and water supplies, bridges, and millions of uninspected cargo containers.

On any given day around the world, some 15 million cargo containers are moving by vessel, truck or train, or awaiting delivery. Any one of these, warns Flynn, has the potential of being exploited as “a poor man’s missile,” a “bomb-in-a box,” and, under current security measures, only in exceptional circumstances would any of these containers be inspected at arrival in any American port.

“Anyone who has $3,000 to $5,000 can lease one of the many millions of containers that circulate around the globe,” explains Flynn. “They can pack it with up to 65,000 pounds of items, close the door, and lock it with a seal that costs a half-dollar.” Right now, calculates Flynn, “the odds stand at about 10 percent that our current targeting and inspection practices would detect a device similar to a Soviet nuclear warhead surrounded by shielding material.”

Flynn spent 20 years as a commissioned officer in the Coast Guard, part of it as a patrol boat commander chasing drug smugglers in speedboats around the Chesapeake Bay. Today, with 95,000 miles of shoreline to protect and an increased pace of operations associated with homeland security, Flynn describes a Coast Guard that’s short of resources and a level of government funding that plods along at “a glacial pace” to replace obsolete facilities and equipment: “While the ships and aircraft of the Coast Guard are out on more frequent and longer security patrols, the service is still operating on a pre-9/11 acquisition plan that will take up to 27 years to replace its already ancient fleet.”

Last year, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Carl Prine made national news regarding the lack of security at chemical plants by walking around inside the Neville Chemical Plant near Pittsburgh with a news camera, accompanied by CBS News correspondent Steve Kroft. No one approached Prine and Kroft until they were off the property, giving them plenty of time to plant a bomb if they had been terrorists.

With no federal laws yet enacted that establish even minimum security standards at the nation’s chemical plants, Flynn points to an Environmental Protection Agency study that shows 823 chemical plant sites in the U.S. where the death or injury toll from a catastrophic disaster could reach from 100,000 to more than one million people. “Just as the 9/11 attackers succeeded in converting domestic commercial aircraft into missiles,” writes Flynn, “our enemies do not need to smuggle chemical weapons across our borders.”

Similarly, there is no federal program to provide oversight on how materials that could be used in acts of bio-terror are handled, no federal mandated standards for even low-tech security controls such as locks and surveillance cameras in medical centers, companies and university research labs that handle radioactive materials and lethal pathogens.

“We are sitting on a time bomb,” concludes Flynn. “We are sailing into a national security version of the Perfect Storm.”

Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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