George W. Bush often says that the safety of all Americans is his highest priority. He doesn't mean advancing vigorously the implementation of laws he has sworn to enforce against occupational disease and trauma, traffic injuries, air pollution, medical malpractice and other unsafe conditions that are taking the lives of many tens of thousands of Americans annually. What he means is commanding the "war on terrorism."
So let's evaluate him at his narrowest definition of safety. First, it is clear that the budget of the Department of Homeland Security - a huge amalgam of government agencies proud to defend their turf even after their consolidation - is out of control.
There are no cost-benefit criteria in operation about how to spend the burgeoning monies Congress and Bush are throwing at this Department. One of its arms is the Transportation Security Agency. You know, the agency that makes you take your shoes off or pats you down at airports. Its money is flying around as well.
Back in 2002, the Office of Management and Budget's chief, Mitch Daniels, told us that his office essentially has no control over the ways Homeland Security spends its budget. He agreed, in a series of meetings with me and our economist, James Love, to file a notice in the Federal Register inviting public comments about the best ways to place the Department under a cost-benefit regime.
The comments were duly received and analyzed by OMB staff and the General Services Administration. But in June 2003, Mr. Daniels resigned his post to run for the Governorship of Indiana. He won. His successor, Josh Bolten, a White House political appointee, has shown no interest, thus far, in continuing his successor's mission.
Just calling any expenditure "homeland security" defers most members of Congress from exercising any real oversight. So dollars are easy to waste because the symbol is nearly untouchable. But Mr. Bolten, who does not return our calls or respond to letters requesting a meeting, is the man who is supposed to be in charge of a tough OMB seeking prudent uses of tax dollars (with the help of several little-noticed Government Acountability Office (GAO) reports).
On January 20th, the New York Times published a masterful editorial titled "Our Unnecessary Insecurity." It pointed out "troubling vulnerabilities that have yet to be seriously addressed by Bush and his Department of Homeland Security. Among these risks are chemical plants, nuclear materials, nuclear power plants, port security, hazardous waste transport and bioterrorism (eg. anthrax).
While the Times properly acknowledges that a complex industrial society can never be supersafe, especially given suicidal attacks, it does take to task the chemical industry whose lobbyists continue to block reasonable safety rules proposed by the Department and EPA.
In fact, many industries have opposed such regulations in their backyards, and where they accede, they demand government subsidies even for normal security precautions, as for guarding nuclear power plants.
It gets worse. Every day, toxic chemicals and lethal wastes are transported by rail and truck through many populated areas. Within a few blocks of the Congress, about 8500 rail cars pass every year, loaded with chlorine, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid and other toxic vapors that could destroy the lives of tens of thousands of people in an hour.
The District of Columbia recently adopted a temporary ban on such shipments, but the railroad company CSX objected. Resolution of this conflict is still pending.
Now either Bush is severely negligent, while using the "war on terrorism" to help him get re-elected, or he knows that he and his cabinet members are exaggerating the terrorist threat here. For if, as Bush often says, there are Al-Qaeda cells in this country that are suicidal, funded, hate this country and know they are being hunted, why have they not struck back at any one of a million targets since 9/11? One answer could be that they are simply not here. Out of 5,000 arrests by Attorney General John Ashcroft of suspected terrorists, he has convicted two, and these convictions were overturned by a court in Michigan. He is zero for 5,000, according to Professor David Cole of Georgetown University, author of Enemy Aliens.
What does Bush think about these issues and questions? He is almost never asked by the press, when they can reach him, which is not often. Besides, Bush is too busy being the conqueror of Iraq with a worsening war-occupation that his own CIA Director Porter Goss described, at a Senate hearing, as providing the occasion for the recruitment and training of many new terrorists.
Fighting stateless terrorism in ways that create more terrorists is what is keeping many an active and retired military, diplomatic and intelligence person awake at night. But not George Bush, who assures us that he loses no sleep over his decisions or their consequences.
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