San Diego Union Tribune

August 25, 2004

Bush touts record on security
Critics disagree 'America is safer'


WASHINGTON – Perhaps no question is more important to President Bush's re-election than whether his policies have made America safer than it was before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

As he prepares for the Republican National Convention, which begins Monday in New York, Bush is doing everything he can to convince the country that the answer is yes.

During a recent speech in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Bush used the phrase "America is safer" four times in two minutes. It is a message that he hammers home repeatedly.

But the public and security experts are less certain of Bush's answer.

Surveys show that voters are split about whether the country is safer and which of the presidential candidates is best qualified to keep them secure.

For the first time since the Vietnam War, polls show that potential voters are as worried about national security and international events as they are about the economy and domestic issues.

Some security experts cite steps taken at home and abroad to say the United States is safer. Others say some administration actions have undermined U.S. credibility around the world and made it more of a target.

The Bush presidency

Monday: How the candidate who promised a "humble" foreign policy became a president who established a strategy of pre-emptive wars.

Today: Has President Bush made the country safer from terrorists today than before 9/11? How voters answer that question may determine the election.

Friday: Elected as a fiscal conservative, Bush has followed through with promised tax cuts but federal spending has exploded under his watch.

Regardless, the list of steps the administration has taken since the wake-up call of Sept. 11, 2001, is long.

It leads with the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan that began in October 2001, which ousted the Taliban regime and denied Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist network a sanctuary and training ground. But the road to democracy and political stability there remains rocky as armed resistance continues.

That was followed by last year's invasion of Iraq, which has led to a prolonged, deadly and expensive struggle to rebuild the economy and create a government in the face of a well-armed and determined insurgency.

At home, Bush signed the USA Patriot Act, which gave the government broad new powers to monitor, investigate and detain suspected terrorists and disrupt their financing. The law also allows unprecedented cooperation between foreign intelligence operations and local law enforcement agencies.

The act, and its vigorous application by Attorney General John Ashcroft, also has raised concerns about the erosion of civil liberties.

Perhaps the most dramatic action was the 2002 passage of the Homeland Security Act that created the Department of Homeland Security – the most sweeping federal government reorganization since the creation of the Defense Department in the late 1940s.

The Cabinet-level department brought together more than 170,000 workers from 22 federal agencies and will spend $40 billion in the next fiscal year, of which at least $5 billion will be devoted to screening airline passengers and baggage.

But even the department's supporters complain that the effort to unify the agencies has been chaotic and that the funding has been inadequate.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge toured the Port of Long Beach aboard a helicopter in June. President Bush's critics say too little has been done to secure the nation's ports.
A related action was the Defense Department's establishment last year of the Northern Command, which put a four-star military officer in charge of defending the U.S. borders and domestic air space.

Despite this record, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry argues that America is not safer.

"I do not believe George Bush has done too much in the war on terror. I believe he's done too little," the Massachusetts senator has said repeatedly.

In most polls, Bush gets a positive rating for his conduct of the war on terrorism and holds a slight lead over Kerry as the candidate that voters consider to be more qualified to head that effort. But nearly two-thirds of those polled are worried about another attack and believe the terrorists are as able to strike now as before 9/11.

Recent events present an equally muddled picture.

Bush has been saying that most of al-Qaeda's leaders have been killed or captured and the rest are on the run and unable to plan major attacks.

But recently revealed arrests of al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistan indicated that a new corps of leaders has emerged and are working to launch major attacks in the United States. As a result, the administration elevated the terror alert to "orange," or high, for key financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington.

Experts on terrorism and national security also have mixed views on the status of the fight against terror and Bush's actions.

Thomas Kean, chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, summed up its findings by saying: "America is safer today than we were on 9/11, but we are not safe."

Michael A. Ledeen, a former terrorism and national security adviser now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, reached a similar conclusion. "We're safer. We're doing better. We're more alert. That doesn't mean we're safe."

Associated Press file photo
President Bush has said that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the capture of Saddam Hussein in December have made the United States safer.
But Ledeen said that terrorists "have been attacking us for 25 years, and they will continue to try."

Most terrorism experts expected another deadly attack in the United States after 9/11 and the fact that has not happened "means we're doing something right," Ledeen said.

Charles Peña, also a former national security aide now with the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, gives some credit to improved security at home and some of the military actions overseas for the lack of another attack. But, looking at the wider picture, he concluded the nation was not safer.

He cited the "growing anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, the growing radicalization among Muslims . . . that does not bode well for the future. That means we're not safer."

Yonah Alexander, a U.S. terrorism expert at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, voiced concern about a lack of focus on long-term efforts to prevent the creation of future generations of America-hating terrorists.

"We have, really, a challenge for the next 100 years. We're dealing with generations," Alexander said.

He advocated programs to counter the poverty and lack of education that can breed radicalism among young Muslims.

P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel who was a National Security Council aide under former President Clinton, said the nation is not safer.

To support that claim, Crowley cited the recent intelligence out of Pakistan as evidence that al-Qaeda is rebuilding its leadership and the "underfunded" homeland security measures, which he blamed on the prolonged conflict in Iraq.

"While we are somewhat better off in homeland security, there still is a tremendous amount to be done. There is no doubting that Iraq is bleeding resources that could be used to make us safer," said Crowley, now at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

As examples of programs that lack funds or personnel, Crowley cited maritime port security, the US-VISIT program to improve scrutiny of immigrants and tourists at ports of entry, and police and fire departments in most cities.

Although several billion dollars and thousands of security agents have reduced the chances of terrorists hijacking jetliners as they did Sept. 11, 2001, there is widespread concern that the nation's borders and seaports remain vulnerable.

The Coast Guard has estimated that it would take $7.5 billion over 10 years to provide the necessary port security, but the administration requested only $46 million for such programs in the 2005 budget, Crowley said.

"Right now, we have a good port security program on paper, but we don't have a good security program at the pier. There is no substitute for resources," he said.

A similar complaint was lodged at a congressional hearing by Port of Los Angeles operations director Noel Cunningham, who testified on behalf of the Association of Port Authorities.

Those concerns were shared by the leaders of the House Transportation maritime subcommittee and more recently by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who told Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson that the lack of funding "is simply unacceptable."

A key concern is the fact that only a small percentage of the 21,000 cargo containers entering U.S. ports daily are inspected. Such containers have been found to contain illegal weapons shipments and immigrants.

Crowley and Peña also disputed Bush's claim that toppling Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq made the nation safer.

Peña focused on the lack of evidence showing a collaboration between Hussein and al-Qaeda, which he said suggests that "taking down the regime had little to do with the war on terror."

"The ultimate irony is, Iraq now is a place where we believe those groups are engaged in acts of terror," he said.

And, Peña added, "We have created an environment that the (Muslim) radicals can capitalize on to fuel anti-American sentiment around the world."