SALT LAKE CITY — As you read this column, it is a fairly good surmise that, somewhere, a terrorist group is planning the next attack on the United States or on American installations abroad. It is an attack not necessarily being planned in some cave in Afghanistan. It could be organized from a coffee bar in Beirut, or a student apartment in Germany - or even somebody's basement in Miami or Atlanta.
We do not know what form the attack will take. It could be an attempt to blow up one of America's landmark bridges. It could be a cyberattack, aimed at disrupting the communications network controlling the US air-traffic control system. It could be a chemical or biological package carried in on a tramp steamer from some Mediterranean country. Or even a suitcase-sized nuclear bomb hidden in one of the thousands of containers that pass through US ports every day.
How well are we prepared? The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a terrible wake-up call for Americans. Much has been done since, including the establishment of a Department of Homeland Security. But a large government bureaucracy takes time to galvanize and restructure. Huge gaps remain in the defense of the American homeland against terrorism.
There are two most notable ones. One is the lack of inspection for the thousands of containers that are unloaded in US ports every day from ships arriving from countries all over the world. The other is the failure to effectively fund and coordinate local firefighters, police officers, and medical personnel, who will be the front-line soldiers in any new catastrophic attack on US soil.
The deficiencies are not for lack of nudging. A government commission cochaired by former Sens. Warren Rudman and Gary Hart was warning before Sept. 11 of the pending terrorist threat, and making recommendations for countermeasures. Few paid much heed to either.
To some of us, the members of the commission resembled those brave but few voices in the European wilderness in the mid-1930s warning of the coming Nazi threat. They were disregarded until Hitler began his military blitzkrieg.
Post-Sept. 11, the Rudman and Hart recommendations gained more credence, but implementation moved slowly. In 2002, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) convened another updating task force with Mr. Rudman and Mr. Hart at the helm. It produced a report ominously titled: "America - Still Unprepared, Still in Danger." Finally, last week, the CFR produced the report of yet another task force chaired by Rudman. It assessed the preparedness of "emergency responders," the firefighters, police, and medical personnel who'd be among the first to deal with a terrorist attack. The task force finding: "Although in some respects the American public is now better prepared to address aspects of the terrorist threat than it was two years ago, the US remains dangerously ill-prepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil."
In a phone interview, Rudman told me: "I hope this report captures somebody's attention. It's very hard to get this government to act with urgency. It can be done. After 9/11, the government acted with extraordinary alacrity to improve the safety of aircraft and airports. We can send troops into Iraq with the latest equipment to withstand biological and chemical attack, but we don't seem to understand that people in the first line of defense against such an attack at home - the police, firemen, medical personnel - don't have enough equipment to do the job."
Where lies the blame? Even some congressmen fault Congress more than the White House. Rudman is discreet, but says: "The Homeland Security Department has only been operating for eight or nine months. They have to have the funding to pass out to the locations which don't have even the minimum equipment they need."
On the screening of containers, Rudman says the government is making progress, but there remains a huge task of mobilizing technology and deploying people and equipment. His task force warned last year that only the "tiniest percentage" of containers, ships, trucks, and trains that enter the US each day are subject to examination. Should these be used to hide and deliver a weapon of mass destruction, the consequence, said the task force, would be to shut the system down at enormous cost.
His voice from the wilderness needs to be heard.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.