Chertoff: US can learn from Mumbai attacks

The Homeland Security Secretary said government agencies must be integrated in order to be effective.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Newscom
Lessons: Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says Mumbai attacks show need for better coordination.

The US is drawing lessons from the attacks in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) that could inform thinking on how government agencies could be better structured and prepared for terror attacks, says the top US official on homeland security.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said government agencies such as his, which is an amalgamation of several entities, must be integrated in order to be effective. A big problem in Mumbai was the lack of coordination between the fire and police departments.

Some of the more “sophisticated” US cities have achieved high levels of coordination but others have not, he said.

“When you look at a crisis or an emergency, you cannot stovepipe your emergency response and your police response,” he said Wednesday at a breakfast with reporters hosted by the Monitor. “You have to have a coordinated plan and coordinated execution.”

His remarks come after various governors complained this week that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was not dispensing money properly and should be removed from the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Mr. Chertoff, who was appointed secretary in 2005, is often at the center of the debate in government circles on how best to protect the country and respond to disasters. A former judge, he is widely respected for the long view he takes on matters of national security.

Experts recognize that the attacks in Mumbai, allegedly by a group called Lashkar-e-Taiba using sophisticated technology and small arms, has serious implications for the US. For years, terrorism experts have feared a seaborne assault. The attackers in Mumbai hijacked a fishing boat and then launched rubber lifeboats to downtown Mumbai. The US has focused on airport security in the wake of 9/11, but its shoreline is largely unprotected.

The DHS has now begun a “small-boat strategy” to minimize danger from the sea. “But minimize does not mean eliminate,” Chertoff said.

He warned against calls for massive reorganizations of the national security apparatus – including pulling FEMA from DHS, which he said could stymie progress. “There ought to be a presumption against reorganization,” he said.

Chertoff’s remarks come the same week a Congressionally mandated panel issued a chilling report on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, concluding that a nuclear or biological attack is likely to occur in the next five years and hinting that the US is a likely target.

Unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is likely that “a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013,” said the report by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

Chertoff, who will be replaced by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano in January, said homeland security debates must not be undercut by narrow political interests. “The debate has often become an unproductive exercise in finger-pointing in which people on each side ... are categorized as bloodthirsty criminals or unpatriotic wimps.”

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