Dereliction of Duty

SYNOPSIS: The Bush administration has thoroughly neglected the war on terrorism at the expense of the public's safety, and instead has exploited it in the press for political gain with phony photo ops and a war in Iraq that has nothing to do with terrorism

Last Thursday a House subcommittee met to finalize next year's homeland security appropriation. The ranking Democrat announced that he would introduce an amendment adding roughly $1 billion for areas like port security and border security that, according to just about every expert, have been severely neglected since Sept. 11. He proposed to pay for the additions by slightly scaling back tax cuts for people making more than $1 million per year.

The subcommittee's chairman promptly closed the meeting to the public, citing national security though no classified material was under discussion. And the bill that emerged from the closed meeting did not contain the extra funding.

It was a perfect symbol of the reality of the Bush administration's "war on terror." Behind the rhetoric and behind the veil of secrecy, invoked in the name of national security but actually used to prevent public scrutiny lies a pattern of neglect, of refusal to take crucial actions to protect us from terrorists. Actual counterterrorism, it seems, doesn't fit the administration's agenda.

Yesterday The Washington Post printed an interview with Rand Beers, a top White House counterterrorism adviser who resigned in March. "They're making us less secure, not more secure," he said of the Bush administration. "As an insider, I saw the things that weren't being done." Among the problem areas he cited were homeland security, where he says the administration has "only a rhetorical policy"; failure to press Saudi Arabia (the home of most of the Sept. 11 terrorists) to take action; and, of course, the way we allowed Afghanistan to relapse into chaos.

Some of this pattern of neglect involves penny-pinching. Back in February, even George W. Bush in effect admitted that not enough money had been allocated to domestic security though (to the fury of Republican legislators) he blamed Congress. Yet according to Fred Kaplan in Slate, the administration's latest budget proposal for homeland security actually contains less money than was spent last year. Meanwhile, urgent priorities remain unmet. For example, port security, identified as a top concern from the very beginning, has so far received only one-tenth as much money as the Coast Guard says is needed.

But it's not just a matter of money. For one thing, it's hard to claim now that the Bush administration is trying to hold down domestic spending to make room for tax cuts. With the budget deficit projected at more than $400 billion this year, a few billion more for homeland security wouldn't make much difference to the tax-cutting agenda. Moreover, Congress isn't pinching pennies across the board: last week the Senate voted to provide $15 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of nuclear power plants.

Furthermore, even on the military front the administration has been weirdly reluctant to come to grips with terrorism. It refused to provide Afghanistan's new government with an adequate security umbrella, with the predictable result that warlords are running rampant and the Taliban are making a comeback. The squandered victory in Afghanistan was one reason people like myself had a bad feeling about the invasion of Iraq and sure enough, the administration was bizarrely lackadaisical about providing postwar security. Even nuclear waste dumps were left unguarded for weeks.

So what's the explanation? The answer, one suspects, is that key figures above all, Donald Rumsfeld just didn't feel like dealing with the real problem. Real counterterrorism mainly involves police work and precautionary measures; it doesn't look impressive on TV, and it doesn't provide many occasions for victory celebrations.

A conventional war, on the other hand, is a lot more fun: you get stirring pictures of tanks rolling across the desert, and you get to do a victory landing on an aircraft carrier. And more and more it seems that that was what the war was all about. After all, the supposed reasons for fighting that war have turned out to be false there were no links to Al Qaeda, there wasn't a big arsenal of W.M.D.'s.

But never mind we won, didn't we? Maybe not. About half of the U.S. Army's combat strength is now tied down in Iraq, facing what looks increasingly like a guerrilla war and like a perfect recruiting device for Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the real war on terror has been neglected, and we've antagonized the allies we need to fight that war. One of these days we'll end up paying the price.

Originally published in The New York Times, 6.17.03