Breach in the Levees
Katrina showed how we’re dangerously vulnerable to another terrorist attack.

By Stephen Gale | The day after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Ted Koppel had these closing thoughts for ABC Nightline: “We [Americans] don’t like anticipating disasters. It suggests pessimism, and America is largely a nation of optimists. But when you look at the damage inflicted by an accidental storm, you have to think about the sheer havoc that an intentional terrorist attack may produce one of these days.”

Unfortunately, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina may be the best indicator of what the United States can expect from the next terrorist attacks, and its effects just a shadow of what could result from further attacks such as those of 9/11. We “optimistic Americans” must come to terms with the very real prospect that devastating, highly disruptive terrorist attacks are likely to be in our future and that prevention and disaster-mitigation planning cannot be put off any longer. The alternative is written in the Gulf Coast death statistics, on the faces of those who survived Katrina, and in the disruptions to a national economy that depends on tightly integrated supply chains.

Katrina was an act of nature—not an event executed by a group intent on disrupting the U.S. economy and society. Terrorist acts, in contrast, are volitional and, by understanding the terrorists’ goals, training, and capabilities, the nation can work to prevent such acts or, at a minimum, make sure that the society and the economy can recover quickly.

Using the failures in hurricane preparation as a model, then, what steps should the U.S. now be taking to ensure that we are not caught flat-footed or, if we are attacked, that the nation is prepared to respond in a manner that does not result in the chaos of New Orleans?


Risk Assessment Failures

Although the conditions that create hurricanes and their impacts are much better understood than those associated with terrorist actions, there was a general failure to take seriously the prospect that a Category 4 (or even 5) hurricane would actually strike the American city most vulnerable to it: New Orleans.

According to last year’s 9/11 Commission Report, the events of 9/11 happened because the various agencies responsible for the safety and security of the nation lacked the “imagination” to appreciate how terrorists could fashion weapons out of everyday objects and functions—using airplanes as cruise missiles.

To provide for the safety and security of America and Americans in the future, it is imagination—imagining the full range of attack scenarios—that is critical. Clearly not all targets are equally likely, and we cannot protect everything all the time. Rather, the answer comes in a method that has long been used in military analysis: Red Team-Blue Team exercises in which the Red Team is responsible for thinking like the enemy and the Blue Team plays the part of the security force. At a minimum, such exercises can help evaluate the likelihood of specific attacks; when coupled with the type of risk-assessment and financial-analysis tools described in a 1998 General Accounting Office report on “Combating Terrorism,” the exercises can lead to more effective and efficient security programs and measures.


Accountability Failures

Just who is responsible for making the investment decisions to provide for the safety and security of the nation’s cities, the people, and the businesses that are needed for the U.S. to function as an integral part of the world economy?

Even in the weeks after Katrina crossed New Orleans, there was a continuing failure of accountability. But given the fact that it is now four years after 9/11, it is truly unfathomable that there are ongoing accountability failures with respect to potential terrorist attacks. The federal government has, for example, made it clear that, although the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for guidance and technology support, the design and implementation of homeland security programs is to be managed at the state and local levels. Indeed, at this point, there is little support for setting common, detailed, security standards or transferring technologies in operational form.

Unquestionably, state and local governments must play critical roles in the implementation of homeland-security measures. So too must private-sector organizations. What is missing, however, is a sense that there is someone, some group, in charge of making sure that the unit—the society, the economy, the American way of life—actually survives and remains healthy in the face of potential terrorist actions. Probably the simplest resolution is to look to the central government as was done in World War II, but, even four years out, such policies have yet to be proposed, not to mention implemented.


Communications Failures

The events in New Orleans demonstrate a mammoth failure of communications. Between television, telephones, the Internet, and instant-messaging—even old-fashioned radio—information could easily have been spread throughout the region and rescue operations coordinated. But even official channels of communications failed to make clear that a major disaster was about to occur, that resources could not be made available to rescue those who chose to ignore the warnings, and that evacuation and relocation operations were being implemented for those who wanted to leave but needed assistance. Even a week after the storm hit, emergency units were still operating on different, incompatible communications frequencies.

The communications failures associated with the current state of counterterrorism and homeland security operations are even worse. Federal, state, and local agencies remain uncoordinated. The private sector has had minimal involvement in establishing standards and guidelines. Even the basic communications systems for law-enforcement and emergency-response units are fragmented.

There is at least one relatively simple measure that could markedly improve this problem: mandating common communications equipment, frequencies, and procedures for all law-enforcement agencies, emergency-response workers, and healthcare personnel. The federally owned and operated Iridium System is available and can easily support piggybacked state, local, and private users at very low cost. It also would symbolize the nation’s commitment to preventing attacks and mounting a unified national response should it be necessary.


Materiel and Personnel Failures

In the aftermath of Katrina, many of the emergency-response plans couldn’t be implemented because key trained-personnel slots were vacant and the necessary materiel had not been stockpiled and pre-located. There are even worse problems with respect to the personnel and materiel available for counterterrorism and homeland security. Whenever DHS increases the Threat Alert status, for example, states and municipalities have generally responded by “increasing the vigilance” of local law-enforcement units. When buses and trains were bombed in Europe, police in the United States were asked to carefully scrutinize passengers at Amtrak stations and other major transportation facilities. This sounds reasonable until we realize that the police probably have neither the trained personnel to determine who are the likely suspects nor the legal directives to do the kind of searches that might actually produce results. Moreover, the types of technical equipment that might be substituted for the absence of training and search authority—even nuclear, chemical, and biological detectors—are not generally available to local law enforcement agencies.

Perhaps the only solution left is one drawn from the past. Materiel and personnel shortages were the rule throughout World War II. It was the nation’s commitment to conserve, to use substitutes, to buy war bonds, and to participate in the war-production system, not simply U.S. military operations, that eventually produced a successful end to the war. A similar national commitment would hopefully produce similar results with respect to the threat from terrorist attacks.

Hurricanes and terrorism are vastly different, but they should be treated primarily as risk assessment and management problems. In the case of terrorism, the state, local, and private custodians of America’s vital infrastructure simply have no agreed way of deciding on the threats they face or the actions they must take, and the federal government thus far has not helped them do it.

A solution may lay at hand in a “security impact statement” that mandates such assessments on the state, local, and private levels; sets standards; sorts out the federal “commons” responsibility; and unties the legal and insurance knots impeding action. Others may have better ideas. But the worst idea is to await another act of terrorism, a man-made Katrina, which is surely what our enemies intend.

Dr. Stephen Gale is an associate professor of political science as well as a senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and co-chair of its Center on Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and Homeland Security. This essay is adapted from an “E-Note” by Gale, which was released by FPRI in September.

©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/28/05


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