Assessing the State of Homeland Security

When asked to explore the likely consequences of several potentially severe terrorist scenarios and to assess what steps may have been taken already to address the risks for a hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security of the Committee of the Judiciary held Oct. 26, Michael E. O'Hanlon, senior fellow for Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, simply stated, "Much remains to be done."

"The recent Katrina experience reminds us of what is at stake, especially since a terrorist attack would clearly provide substantially less warning," said O'Hanlon. He pointed out that an Oct. 6 speech by President George W. Bush revealed how many times potential terrorist strikes had been in the works against the United States even before 9/11.

"The July subway attacks in London remind us that the danger of such attacks has not ended, even within the western world. And globally, the strength of the Jihadist terror movement (broadly defined) is on balance as great as ever. Clearly, we cannot let down our guard. Yet we must also be judicious, cost-effective and pragmatic in how we attempt to counter terrorism here at home, given the costs to our pocketbooks and way of life of any excessive efforts to protect the homeland."

O'Hanlon offered a review of steps taken – and not taken – since 2001.

He noted that the United States has taken what he called "a number of impressive steps" since 9/11 to protect itself against terror.

"The greatest progress has been witnessed in air security, protection of key government property and prominent infrastructure and other symbolically significant sites in our country, some types of protection against biological attack, elimination of legal and bureaucratic barriers due to the Patriot Act and intelligence reform and greater integration of our border security agencies as well as our terrorism watch lists," said O'Hanlon.

However, he added, "much remains to be done," including:

  • Private plans are not regulated as well as commercial airlines.
  • Large private skyscrapers are not all protected against truck bombs or biological or chemical attacks.
  • The capacity to produce and distribute antidotes to most types of biological attacks is insufficient.
  • Border security resources remain too limited.
  • Intelligence integration cannot yet begin to truly "connect the dots" about looming terrorist strikes through automated information analysis.

And, testified O'Hanlon, "The chemical industry and the transportation systems that serve it are barely protected at all. Passenger trains and buses are still very vulnerable…. The electricity infrastructure is badly protected and systemically fragile. Food supplies are largely undefended."

In addition, some types of homeland security measures currently are either impractical or unnecessary, he added, including 100 percent screening of cargo containers entering the country, protection of most malls and restaurants against suicide bombers and individuals with semiautomatic weapons and the creation of large additional hospital capacity for quarantining patients with contagious diseases.

As for specific terrorist scenerarios, O'Hanlon mentioned one that is akin in some ways to the Katrina experience. An attack against the Hoover or Glen Canyon dams on the Colorado River could be catastrophic in at least three ways:

  • The rapid inundation of small, nearby towns, with high fatality rates likely.
  • The probably destruction of large swaths of major downriver cities, including Las Vegas.
  • The extended economic distruption resulting from demolition of facilities so critical to the water and electricity supplies of the southwest United States.

He offered the committee this information concerning the possible scale of terrorist attacks:

  • Efficient, high-potency biological attack – 1 million possible fatalities – extremely low likelihood
  • Atomic bomb detonated in the U.S. city – 100,000 fatalities – very low likelihood
  • Attack on a nuclear or toxic chemical plant – 10,000 fatalities – very low likelihood
  • Relatively inefficient biological or chemical attack in a stadium, train station or skyscraper – 1,000 fatalities – low likelihood
  • Conventional ordnance attack on train or plane – 300 fatalities – modest likelihood
  • Suicide attack with explosives or firearms in a mall or crowded street – 100 fatalities – modest likelihood.

O'Hanlon noted the economic disruption as the result of terrorism could be massive; as much as $1 trillion if weapons of mass destruction were shipped via a container or mail, because of the extended shut down in trade, loss of life, physical destruction and lost production in the impacted area. A bombing or even bombing scare could cause the effective shutdown of several major cities for a day, creating potential costs of up to $10 billion.

"It would be a mistake to assume the creation of the Department of Homeland Security will automatically lead to better protection against such threats," O'Hanlon testified. "Such reorganizations are extremely difficult, time consuming and distracting. They can distract attention from efforts to identify remaining key American vulnerabilities and then mitigate them. These problems were of course witnessed during and after Hurricane Katrina, when FEMA's response to the disaster hardly seemed to have been facilitated by its incorporation within a larger, new organization."

Read all of O'Hanlon's testimony at

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