The most important overlooked story of the past few weeks was overlooked because it was not surprising. Also because no one really wants to notice it. The weight of 9/11 and all its implications is so much on our minds that it’s never on our mind.
I speak of the report from the inspector general of the Justice Department, issued in late May, saying the department is not prepared to ensure public safety in the days or weeks after a terrorist attack in which nuclear, biological or chemical weapons are used. The Department of Homeland Security is designated as first federal responder, in a way, in the event of a WMD attack, but every agency in government has a formal, assigned role, and the crucial job of Justice is to manage and coordinate law enforcement and step in if state and local authorities are overwhelmed.
So how would Justice do, almost nine years after the attacks of 9/11? Poorly. “The Department is not prepared to fulfill its role . . . to ensure public safety and security in the event of a WMD incident,” says the 61-page report. Justice has yet to assign an entity or individual with clear responsibility for oversight or management of WMD response; it has not catalogued its resources in terms of either personnel or equipment; it does not have written plans or checklists in case of a WMD attack. A deputy assistant attorney general for policy and planning is quoted as saying “it is not clear” who in the department is responsible for handling WMD response. Workers interviewed said the department’s operational response program “lacks leadership and oversight.” An unidentified Justice Department official was quoted: “We are totally unprepared.” He added. “Right now, being totally effective would never happen. Everybody would be winging it.”
The inspector general’s staff interviewed 36 senior officials involved in the department’s emergency response planning and summarized the finding: “It was clear that no person or entity is managing the overall Department’s response activities.” You could almost see them scratching their heads and saying, “No one’s in charge here.”
The report reminded me of the CBS News reporter who, working the overnight and monitoring the wires, saw the first report in 1957 that the Soviet Union had launched the first satellite, Sputnik. He called the rocket launch site at Cape Canaveral for a reaction. “We’re all asleep here!” a rocket scientist replied, according to lore. They certainly were. A year later NASA was born.
There is one bright spot in the inspector general’s report: the FBI, which was highlighted for its organizational seriousness about WMD readiness, including holding regular exercises and training sessions, and having an actual response plan with clear lines of responsibility. All credit to the bureau.
The report was not the first of its kind. Six months ago, the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism gave both the Obama administration and Congress failing grades on preparedness for biological attack. It said, “the US is failing to address several urgent threats, especially bioterrorism.” The administration soon announced it would speed up delivery of drugs that would be needed in the event of an attack.
After the inspector general’s report, Paul McHale, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who also served as an assistant secretary of defense under George W. Bush, told the Los Angeles Times: “There is a sense of complacency that has settled in nearly a decade after Sept. 11.” The paper also quoted Randall Larsen, the former executive director of the commission that gave the government low marks in January: “They just don’t see the WMD scenario as most likely,” he said.
They don’t? They must be idiots. They must not be reading all the government reports of the past eight years, declaring terrorist attacks on U.S. soil not only likely but virtually certain. There are many reasons for this, and just one has to do with something Ronald Reagan mused about in his office 25 years ago. “Man has never had a weapon he didn’t use,” he said, to a handful of aides. If you develop the atom bomb, it will be used, as it was. If man, in his darkness, can develop and deploy nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, they will be used, too.
No one wants to think about it. I don’t want to think about it. But you have to make plans. You have to imagine, you have to think about the worst case, and then you have to plan for it—literally. We’ve had enough time, nine years since our unforgettable reminder that history is, among other things, and some of them quite wonderful, a charnel house.
Our eye is off the ball. The public, in spite of what it knows in the day to day, assumes the government is on the case. And certainly the government is on the case with regard to prevention: Not being hit again since 2001 means something, and our antiterrorism professionals, intelligence and law-enforcement agents, do impressive work. In New York the past week they picked up two apparent would-be terrorists who won’t be playing jihad anytime soon. But public awareness of prevention success gives the impression the government is similarly capable in terms of readiness and response.
You can see a certain air of complacency even on government websites. On the front page of the House Committee on Homeland Security site there’s a picture of Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, then, below, an area devoted to something called “Business Opportunities Model” and an area for “DHS Business Opportunities.” On the Homeland Security Department’s website, the priorities seem equally clear: “Find Career Opportunities,” “Use the Job Finder.” There’s little sense of urgency; it’s government as employment agency, not crisis leader.
A few days before the report on the Justice Department, Henry Kissinger spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in favor of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. His testimony was moving—the old vet shares his anxieties for the future—and pertinent. Asked to think aloud on the foreign-policy landscape, the former national security adviser and secretary of state’s thoughts turned toward the facts of the age we live in. Suicide bombers, or those who might independently use WMDs, are unlike nations: “They do not calculate in any classic way.” The moment we are living in is both dramatic and uncertain. “What happens if we woke up one morning and found that 500,000 people had been killed somewhere?”
On 9/11 we were rocked but held together. In a second and more devastating attack, public safety and public unity would be infinitely more stressed. The event, having had a precursor, would be infinitely more painful. You’d think this would focus the government’s mind.
We may be witnessing again a failure of imagination, the famous phrase used after 9/11 to capture why the U.S. government was caught so flatfooted and was so stunned that such a terrible thing could occur. They neglected to think of the worst thing that could happen, and so of course they did not plan for it. If agencies within the government now are having a second failure of imagination, it is not forgivable. We’re not being asked to imagine a place we’ve never been, after all, we’re only being asked to imagine where we’ve been, and how it could be worse, and plan for it.