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YEARS OF INACTION ON HOME DEFENSE

The watchdog did not bark just once. The alarm was sounded over and over again about the threat to the United States from terrorist organizations with vendettas against this country.

On March 11, 1999, exactly 2 1/2 years before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas opened the first hearing of his newly formed Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Military Capabilities by focusing on "the arsenal of weapons now potentially available to terrorist groups" and the weakness of the government's organization to counter those groups.

In words that now sound eerily prescient, Roberts warned that there is "a real opportunity for a handful of zealots to wreak havoc on a scale that hitherto only armies could attain." Targets will be "selected for their symbolic value, like the World Trade Center in the heart of Manhattan," he said, "because terrorists need to escalate their attacks, making each more spectacular and horrific than its predecessor."

Of great concern, Roberts said, was the fact that "some 40 federal departments and agencies, as well as local governments in virtually every state in the Union," share the responsibility for countering terrorism -- with no one certain who is in charge.

Roberts' warning has been echoed and amplified by no fewer than four separate blue-ribbon commissions in the past year, most recently by a bipartisan group headed by former Sens. Gary Hart of Colorado and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire.

After three years of work, that remarkably diverse group unanimously declared last February that domestic terrorism is the primary national security threat and said, "The United States is today very poorly organized to design and implement any comprehensive strategy to protect the homeland."

Commission leaders briefed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House national security officials. There were a couple of hearings on Capitol Hill. But the report soon slipped from sight, even losing its place on the Pentagon Web site, Rudman told me.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, introduced legislation to carry out one of the principal Hart-Rudman recommendations: creation of a National Homeland Security Agency, headed by a Cabinet-level official reporting directly to the president. It would consolidate the current Federal Emergency Management Agency with three other governmental units that now divide the responsibility for safeguarding U.S. borders -- the Border Patrol in the Department of Justice; the Customs Service, in Treasury; the Coast Guard, in Transportation. Currently, Rudman said, they cannot even share information because they have separate computer and communications systems, making the difficult challenge of monitoring the people and goods entering this country an almost impossible task.

Thornberry's bill got one hearing, but nothing happened. "It's very difficult to reorganize government agencies," he told me, "because you're stepping on bureaucratic toes and on turf in Congress. There just hasn't been much momentum for this."

That is changing now. On Thursday night, in his televised address to a joint session of Congress, President Bush announced the creation of a Cabinet-level position with authority to coordinate the government's scattered homeland protection activities, and appointed Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to the job. Bush did not make it clear how much consolidation of agencies he has in mind. Vice President Cheney, who was assigned last May to review the nation's anti-terrorism strategy and structure, may have more to say in a report his staff says is imminent. Meantime, Hart and Rudman testified in support of their proposal before one Senate committee Friday and have been invited to another this week.

Whatever form the reorganized homeland defense structure finally takes, "the magnitude of the issue should overwhelm the bureaucratic concerns," Hart said. He and others point out that the Sept. 11 tragedy could have been much worse. New York City and the Pentagon have available an abundance of medical facilities, police, firefighters and other emergency personnel. Most communities are not nearly so well equipped.

And we have not yet seen the worst havoc terrorists might cause. "We face even greater danger with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a commission member, said. There is no excuse for dillydallying.

Washington Post Writers Group

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