Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke to newly elected Dems: "Don't blow it"

December 15th, 2006

Five serious counterterror ideas for Dems

Be Our Guest

By Richard Clarkeand ROB KNAKE

Having won control of both houses of Congress, Democrats have an opportunity to erase the GOP advantage on homeland security – which has been one of the Republicans' most formidable political weapons since 9/11 – and, while the're at it, actually make the nation safer.

Or, they can blow it.

Early signs are not encouraging. During the campaign season, Democrats promised an up-or-down vote on an entire package of recommendations from the independent 9/11 commission report.

That was a campaign talking point worthy of Karl Rove. Yes, the 9/11 commission called for some critical reforms, but forcing a single vote on the entire set – including many ideas that have already been implemented and others that are, at this stage, irrelevant – is putting symbolism and gimmickry before serious homeland security policy.

If congressional Democrats are truly committed to developing a smarter counterterrorism strategy, they should drop the silly sloganeering and focus fiercely and immediately on five specific fronts:

1. Homeland Security Oversight: The first thing the Senate should do is give the oversight job to one committee. Today, Customs, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard continue to report to the committees they reported to when they were parts of different departments. That's a recipe for disaster.

2. Chemical Plants: Legislation passed by Congress last fall gives the Homeland Security Department a paltry $10 million to oversee security at the nation's 15,000 chemical plants. By comparison, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission budgets more than $50 million to ensure the safety of the nation's 140 nuclear power reactors. Congress should pass new legislation that gives the Homeland Security Department real resources to police industry adoption.

3. Interoperable Communications: It is beyond outrageous that first responders still lack reliable communications for managing large disasters and terrorist attacks – and that TV stations are a big part of the reason why. In the last Congress, broadcasters got the date for their switch from analog to digital signals pushed back to 2009, delaying the liberation of critical radio spectrum for emergencies. Broadcasters, who have had since 1996 to make the transition, say they need the additional time. That's not true – and we don't have two more years to wait. Congress should set a new deadline of the end of 2007 and ensure adequate funding for first responders to get the equipment they need.

4. Homeland Security Funding: Quit the bickering over “risk-based formulas” and distribute funds at the state and metropolitan level based on population. Under this scheme, each state would get $5.30 per resident with California getting $180 million, New York $100 million and Wyoming $2.6 million. Under the current formula, California and New York each receive about $2.50 per resident, with Wyoming raking in $15 per resident.

5. Securing Nuclear Materials: Nearly two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, efforts to secure Soviet nuclear facilities and materials are only halfway complete. The new Congress must make funding available to clean out the most vulnerable sites, secure the remainder and speed the conversion of nuclear research reactors to nonweapons-grade fuel.

After Congress takes these five urgent steps, then we can talk about what comes next.

Clarke served three Presidents as an adviser on national security and counterterrorism and is now chairman of Good Harbor Consulting. Knake, a former research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a director at Good Harbor.

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