During the presidential campaign, there was a striking lack of debate on homeland security. Given the country’s economic problems, the public understandably wasn’t focused on terrorism, and President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney may have been satisfied that the government’s reforms since the 9/11 attacks enhanced our safety and left little to debate.
The silence is eerily reminiscent of the 2000 presidential campaign, when, despite a horrific attack on a U.S. warship during the height of the campaign and the bombings of two U.S. embassies only two years before, neither candidate had much to say about terrorism. As then, we cannot afford to forego an ongoing debate on our security.
Al Qaeda has been hurt badly, and could have considerable difficulty in executing a spectacular terrorist attack or coordinating simultaneous attacks. But the terrorist threat has evolved significantly over the last several years and is still lethal.
Small al Qaeda cells continue to have the intent and capability to cause serious harm. The murder last September of our diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, made that clear. Al Qaeda offshoots pose threats emanating from Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel.
As we said in the 9/11 Commission Report, the U.S. must ensure that the world’s most dangerous groups do not acquire the world’s most dangerous weapons — nuclear, biological or chemical. While there is discussion about whether the nuclear threat has receded, the gravity of harm that would result from terrorists obtaining such weapons means that we must continue to sharply focus on this dangerous potentiality.
Moreover, of great concern now are the homegrown lone wolves who strike domestically. The Fort Hood shooter in Texas falls into this treacherous category. Increasingly, vulnerable and disaffected young people are becoming radicalized online, and a portion of these will then commit violent acts.
In this digital age, every critical facet of our society and national infrastructure depends on the cyber sphere. But our country’s cyber system is highly vulnerable. Recent international events clarify that catastrophic attacks are possible and would wreak havoc. The private sector, which controls an estimated 85 percent of our critical national infrastructure, must be engaged.
And, Hurricane Sandy reminded us this fall that unified command and interoperable emergency communications systems are imperative to respond to man-made and natural disasters.
Post-9/11 increases in our government’s counterterrorism authorities led the 9/11 Commission to recommend strongly and Congress to create the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to review government security measures and balance them against citizens’ freedoms. But the board is moribund, as administrations are slow to nominate members and the Senate slow to confirm them.
Finally, as the 9/11 Commission stated in its 2004 report, congressional oversight on homeland security remains “dysfunctional” because Congress maintains an antiquated committee jurisdictional architecture that splits oversight among more than 100 committees and subcommittees.
Obama will soon be sworn in for his second term, and the 113th Congress will begin its work. Their homeland security priorities should include:
Continuing the United States’s leadership role in working with allies to secure and reduce nuclear stockpiles throughout the world. Congress must provide funds necessary to achieve this critical aim.
Bringing together the private sector, foundations, philanthropists and community groups to contest al Qaeda’s ideology, including by helping credible messengers such as victims of terrorism to become more effective at conveying their messages — especially online.
Devoting all resources and personnel necessary to implement legislation allocating broadband spectrum for emergency responders. An efficient emergency communications system should be implemented nationwide.
Getting its own house in order to protect the government’s cyber domain, and working closely with the private sector to secure critical infrastructure. Comprehensive cybersecurity legislation has failed in the Senate but should be enacted to convey cybersecurity’s importance to government and the private sector alike.
Empowering a robust Privacy and Civil Liberties Board. The Senate should confirm the president’s nominee to chair the board so that it can hire an executive director and staff and begin work.
Reforming congressional committee jurisdictions, including to have only one committee in each of the House and Senate oversee the Department of Homeland Security.
Keeping our country safe is the government’s first responsibility. In a time of economic austerity, hard decisions and trade-offs are needed. Even if prolonged periods pass when we haven’t suffered an attack, the public must avoid complacency. Our strongest asset in strengthening our security is an informed and active public that continuously demands action by the government.
Hamilton, a former congressman from Indiana, and Kean, former governor of New Jersey, co-chaired the 9/11 Commission. They now co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security Project.