State of Homeland Security Address
By Jim Hall
Thank you for having me here today. I was especially pleased to work out the details for tonight with Brent Young of Baker Donelson. As I told Brent, even though I am a rare commodity, an East Tennessee Democrat, Howard Henry Baker has always been one of my heroes.
A friend of mine from East Tennessee reminded me of a Howard Baker story the other day. He was talking about Howard's run for president in 1980, and how Howard warmly remembered those mornings standing in front of factory gates, greeting those hearty workers in New Hampshire in below-zero temperatures and heavy snow. After one of these trips, Sen. Baker returned to Tennessee and talked to his grandmother, Mother Ladd. Some of you might remember that at one time, Mother Ladd was the sheriff of Roane County, Tennessee. Howard asked Mother Ladd if she would support him for President. After a long pause, she finally said, "Yes." But then she quickly added that if he really wanted to have power, he needed to run for sheriff, not for president. That's where the real power is. I guess that's what they mean when they say all politics is local.
They've asked me to speak about homeland security tonight, and I am happy to do that. The sad, truth, however, is that I don't believe we're any better off today when it comes to protecting our homeland than we were before 9/11.
There's no question that if you ask most Americans when this modern era of homeland security began, when the seeds were planted, they'd tell you the exact day: September 11, 2001. But the very fact that 9/11 is the universally acknowledged day when we began to take homeland security seriously for the first time since World War II only shows how little attention we've paid to this issue.
You see, I might answer that question with a specific day in mind, too, but it wouldn't be September 11, 2001. It would be December 21, 1988. Or February 26, 1993. Or August 7, 1998. Those were the dates when Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland. When a car bomb exploded beneath the World Trade Center. And when American embassies were bombed in Africa. The tragedy is that those were days when we should have started to pay attention. And there were other days, too. But we failed, as a government and as a people, to address the emerging terrorist threat that we saw coming. Despite the warnings, neither our domestic agencies nor our intelligence services were prepared for what happened. We continued on with business as usual, and we know where that led us.
On September 11, the American people paid a horrible price because of flaws in our nation's aviation security system. As a member of the Gore Commission on Aviation Safety and Security - convened in 1996 - I saw the airline industry lobby against security enhancements that would likely have prevented 9/11. The airlines and sympathetic government officials claimed that everything was just fine, and fought legislation to match passengers with bags and to enhance security checks on airport personnel. And the status quo prevailed.
After September 11, everyone said they were going to take security issues seriously. But I'd argue that all we got was a knee-jerk reaction that has left far too many holes in the system, and that's why I say we're essentially no better off today than we were before. We still have serious flaws in the system that continue to go unaddressed while high-profile projects - such as airport passenger screening and pork barrel projects for local communities - grab the spotlight.
I've seen this kind of thing before in a different context. When I led the NTSB, Congress reacted to highway fatality numbers with a mandatory airbag requirement, when the real problem was that Americans weren't wearing their seatbelts. Instead, the mandatory airbag response ended up creating another, even worse problem when those airbags ended up killing and seriously injuring children and small-statured adults. We ended up spending 10 years solving the problem with second-generation airbags. I digress, but the point is this: After 9/11, Congress took a lot of action in a short time, and only now are people beginning to ask if we've accomplished anything meaningful or if in fact we've possibly made things worse.
Immediately following September 11, without the results of any sort of investigation, and with the White House fighting the very notion of the 9/11 Commission, Congress created a brand-new agency - the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA then proceeded to spend millions if not billions of dollars to set up a system in which everyone who boards a plane is treated as an equal threat.
My belief is that we had two ways to go after September 11 to approach the very basic issue of passenger screening. One was with a program of risk assessment, with a heavy emphasis on the use of technology; and the other was the philosophy that we in fact followed, and that is to treat everybody who walks through the airport as an equal threat, whether it's a 95-year-old grandmother or a 3-month-old infant. As a result, we've invested a whole lot of money in manpower, and we haven't invested appropriately in the types of technology that would allow us to do selective screening on people targeted as potential terrorists.
We focused almost entirely on airport passenger screening, which really is the low-hanging fruit. It's something every traveler notices, so it creates an illusion that progress is being made across the board. Instead of prioritizing based on risk assessments and the biggest threats to our national security, we have wound up with a system that has focused on the most attention-grabbing national issues and pork barrel projects for states and local communities.
In the realm of commercial aviation, I tell you there are as many if not more threats to our nation's air cargo system than there are to our passenger system, but nobody other than the cargo pilots is paying any attention.
Here in Tennessee, our biggest threats are to our nuclear facilities, our dams, and our chemical facilities. But instead of addressing those threats through a comprehensive national plan, we're throwing money at states and communities, many of which have no structure in place on how to effectively spend that money. Police chiefs, fire chiefs and other first responders will tell you themselves that the money's great, but a PLAN would be even better.
Again, that's why I say we're no better off today than we were before 9/11 and why nobody should be surprised if we see another failure in our homeland security system.
I realize that anyone who advocates for stronger homeland security measures eventually has to deal with the question of civil liberties - that is, the conflict between security and civil liberties. Obviously, there is a potential conflict we should be mindful of, and you won't find a stronger advocate for civil liberties than me. But I do believe that with common sense we can find a balance.
We all know for a fact now that an airplane can be used as a weapon of mass destruction. This notion that you should be able to fly on an airplane with no other requirement than to flash an ID just doesn't cut it any more. Think about all you subject yourself to just to drive an automobile in this country. You have to have a license, you have to have insurance, you have to turn your windshield wipers on when it's raining, you have to obey the speed limit, you have to be sure your car meets certain environmental standards. We give up a lot just to drive a car. So I think we need to be realistic when we start worrying so much about infringing on the civil liberties of airplane passengers. We are the number one target in the world. We can't allow another 9/11 to happen.
If you want to talk about civil liberties issues, to me the major civil liberty offense in this country is not the way we handle passenger screening but the way the government is keeping information from the American people. The biggest problem is that everybody in Washington, D.C., wants to classify everything, and the result is that they're building a wall between the government and the people stronger than any barrier we've devised to stop terrorists. In fact, the Bush administration has made an unprecedented number of requests to seal information from the public - 15.6 million such requests in 2004. All this secrecy isn't making us safer - it's making us less safe when all it does is allow the TSA or the Department of Homeland Security or the administration to hide its mistakes. We're in trouble when we confuse an agency's self-interest with legitimate matters of national security.
Protecting our homeland is going to take a lot of rational thought, and more importantly it's going to require us to work together to solve problems. In Washington these days, we're a lot more accustomed to screaming at one another than at engaging in a real discourse. In order to have productive, meaningful discussions, however, it's going to require not just cooperation but access to information. I have confidence in the American people and in Congress, but if all the information is classified, there's no way we'll know what the threats are and no way to know how to address them.
I think most of you will agree with me that we really haven't really come together as a nation to deal with these issues except for a brief period right after 9/11. Since that point, we've regressed right back into our typical pattern of partisan political squabble. So, I think it's vital that we remember that if we have learned nothing else from what went wrong on September 11, it's this: Look what happens when everybody pulls in different directions and nobody is accountable for anything. For years and years, special commissions had pointed to critical flaws in our aviation security systems. But as soon as those recommendations were made, you had everybody in the airline industry and everybody in Washington looking out for what they perceived to be their own interests, and nobody was working together to get anything meaningful accomplished. Of course, what everyone realized after it was too late is that when you have everyone protecting their own turf, in reality no one is protected. We were all left vulnerable, and we know what happened.
That's why I say we will have to work together if we're going change a congressional structure that no longer works. I talked earlier about technologies that are desperately needed. Talk to people in Washington and they'll tell you the biggest roadblocks in adopting new technologies are the arcane procurement rules and regulations that make it take so long to do anything. We can do better than that when we come together to solve a problem.
It's the same with civil liberties issues. We're going to have to come together as a society to address the problem and come up with effective solutions. It's going to take real people talking about real issues. That's why I'm energized being around thoughtful people like those of you here tonight. It's people like you who are going to come up with the solutions that will take us where we need to be. And I challenge you to do just that. My call to action tonight is to challenge you as a bar association to address the civil liberties issues and to address the access-to-information issues that are so important to our national security. We don't need experts from Washington debating these issues, we need Americans everywhere leading the charge for real change. Even when we're talking about homeland security, it's like Mother Ladd told Howard Baker: The real power is at the local level, not up in Washington.
Monday, June 6, 2005