Homeland Insecurity

This is the time of year when we put together BF‘s annual Rankings Report, so we’ve been compiling our list of the states with the Best Infrastructure. This category tells you which states are doing the best job of upgrading their roads, bridges, dams, pipelines, broadband and all of the other essentials of transportation and commerce.

Homeland SecurityBut there’s another type of infrastructure that’s in dire need of an overhaul: the national security edifice that’s supposed to prevent terrorists from murdering us on the streets of the America.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, we all came to the realization that the atrocities committed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (and aboard a plane full of courageous Americans in the skies over Pennsylvania) might have been prevented if the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been able to share its early suspicions about the terrorists with U.S. intelligence agencies. FBI agents had noticed that some characters from the Middle East were attending flight schools in the U.S.; they were learning how to fly commercial aircraft, but seemed to have no interest in acquiring the skills for takeoffs or landings.

What became known as “a failure to connect the dots” moved Congress to create an umbrella agency that would serve as a bridge between our domestic law enforcement agencies, the U.S. Customs Service, the Border Patrol and the alphabet soup of intelligence agencies charged with protecting the U.S. from overseas threats. Thus the Department of Homeland Security was born.

Unfortunately, like every other new cabinet-level federal department Congress has ever created—take your pick, from the Veterans Administration to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Department of Education and everything in between—the need to address a national problem through restructuring and consolidation of agencies quickly gave way to the usual imperative in Washington: an ever-expanding and grotesquely bloated permanent bureaucracy that spends untold billions and doesn’t actually do the job it was created to do.

In the days following the massacre in Orlando, FL, a depressingly familiar litany of facts has emerged. The FBI had twice questioned the perpetrator, put him on a watch list and then removed him from it. Despite two trips to Saudi Arabia and a close association with the only American who had fulfilled the trifecta of joining ISIS, traveling to Syria and blowing himself up, no one was watching this individual three weeks ago, when he walked into a Florida gun shop. He purchased a super-efficient Sig Sauer military-grade automatic assault rifle (with a folding stock to make it easier to conceal), a high-caliber handgun and hundreds of rounds of ammo in high-capacity magazine clips. He used these weapons to satisfy his twisted rage with the carnage of mass murder in an Orlando nightclub filled with young Americans having a good time on a Saturday night. In the middle of his three-hour rampage, he posted a message on Facebook swearing his allegiance to ISIS. He killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 before the police punched a hole in the side of the building and shot him.

The FBI is the finest law enforcement agency in the world, but its director repeatedly has told us he doesn’t have the resources to watch all of the potential terrorists who already are living in America, or to vet the scores of nefarious people who may be trying to enter the United States for the sole purpose of killing Americans. Last year, after the U.S. intensified its air war against ISIS, ISIS told its new recruits not to travel to Syria or Iraq to join them. “Kill them where you are and don’t contact us for permission” were the new instructions, spewed out to thousands of terrorist wannabes all over the world via social media.

The FBI currently has about 13,000 agents, supported by 35,000 administrative employees who are not out in the field, with an annual budget of $8 billion. That may sound like a lot, but when you’re also required to investigate bank robberies, mail fraud and suspected felonious violations of hundreds of other federal statutes, there aren’t a lot of agents available to spend days or months keeping a close eye on individuals who are in the process of convincing themselves to become terrorists.

The Department of Homeland Security has an annual budget of $65 billion and half a million federal employees on its payroll. Your grandma no doubt met a few of them when she was frisked and told to throw away her bottle of shampoo at the airport. While the $3.5 billion the DHS allocates to airport security may be well spent, the mammoth department has dozens of other responsibilities that are not related to stopping terrorists:

  • Federal disaster agencies and disaster funds, including FEMA and the DRF, have been folded into DHS, which administers $9.8 billion in funding for them. So if a terrorist riding across the U.S. in a car loaded with automatic weapons tosses a cigarette out the window and starts a wildfire, DHS employees will race to the scene…of the fire.
  • In the 2016 budget summary posted on its website, DHS proudly wants us to know that it’s on the front lines of the fight against climate change. DHS is spending $616 million “in support of the President’s Climate Resilience Initiatives,” including $400 million for flood mapping “essential to educating communities about flood risk.” So if it’s raining when a terrorist is driving across the U.S. in a vehicle loaded with a military-grade arsenal of weapons, maps paid for by DHS will help him make sure his gunpowder doesn’t get wet.
  • DHS is spending $162 million to care for unaccompanied children who have crossed the U.S. border; $343 million to fund an increased number of “family beds” for families with children who illegally cross the border; and $122.5 million for something DHS calls the “Alternatives to Detention” program for individuals it has screened but “are not considered a threat to our communities.” So if a terrorist is driving across the country with a vial of anthrax he intends to uncork in the subway system of a major American city, DHS is contributing to the protection of public health by changing the diapers of Ecuadorian babies who have been carried into the country by their mothers. There’s a lot more stuff like that in the budget summary, but you get the picture.

The DHS budget is almost twice the combined budgets of the FBI and the Department of Justice. More than $50 billion of the DHS budget is designated as discretionary spending, meaning DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson can move the money around to cover unforeseen priorities—like when he really needed to fly to New York on the government’s dime a few months ago to film a celebrity interview with Homeland star Claire Danes in a chic Manhattan restaurant.

It’s time to get real about the threat we’re facing and to spend the big bucks on the folks who are trained to stop the bad guys. The FBI’s agents are the best in the world at what they do; we need a lot more of them, and we need them NOW.

Let’s break up the DHS and give at least a third of its budget to the FBI, quadrupling the number of field agents. Embed an FBI team trained in counter-terrorism on the police force of each of the 217 American cities with a population of more than 150,000; assign at least one agent to each of the cities and towns whose populations range from 50,000 to 150,000 (there are about 300 of them). Take another big slice of the DHS money pie and disperse it to police departments across America so each of them can set up a terrorist-fighting unit to work with (and be trained by) the FBI’s local agent.

As this is being written, the U.S. Senate—after a 15-hour filibuster led by the two senators from Connecticut, home of the Newtown school massacre—finally has agreed to vote on a measure that would bar people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing assault weapons. What, you didn’t know that suspected terrorist wannabes we’re actually watching are legally permitted to buy weapons? Yes, it’s that bad, folks.

But that’s not enough. The Orlando shooter was not on the watch list, and the terrorists who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, CA in December had an accomplice buy their weapons for them. It’s time for Congress to reinstate—and vastly strengthen—the assault weapons ban that was in effect in the United States from 1994 until its 10-year mandate was permitted to expire by Congress in 2004.

You may not remember the federal assault weapons ban, enacted as part of a sweeping crime bill signed into law by President Clinton in 1994, because it didn’t actually prohibit anyone from buying weapons. The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, as it was called, prohibited “the manufacture for civilian use” of certain semi-automatic firearms the law defined as assault weapons, as well as large-capacity magazines for ammunition. It took some of the deadliest weapons off the market for 10 years, no doubt saving lives, without doing any damage whatsoever to the Second Amendment.

But now it’s time for a real assault weapons ban, a ban that would prohibit the sale of military-grade assault rifles and high-capacity magazines to anyone in the United States. If there’s a legitimate reason for a civilian to have access to these weapons of war, we’ve never heard it. The only reason put forth by the National Rifle Association for its opposition to an assault weapons ban is that such a ban would put America on the “slippery slope” of disarming everyone, including the people who have purchased more than 300 million high-caliber handguns in the U.S.

Nobody is proposing a ban on handguns in America. What the NRA doesn’t want you to know is that we’re already on a “slippery slope”—a slope the NRA has fiercely lobbied to create—which has infested every corner of America with weapons that were designed for mass killing of the military kind and have no purpose other than to rapidly slaughter large numbers of people. While it pretends to be the last line of defense for a Second Amendment “under attack,” the NRA is busy mounting legal challenges to laws prohibiting people from carrying concealed weapons wherever they want, including in schools, parks, stadiums and every other public venue you can think of.

As sick as the NRA’s agenda is—anyone up for stocking the souvenir stand at Frontierland in Disney World with Uzis?—its primary motivation is even more dangerous. The NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is that if individuals don’t like the way their local police departments are enforcing the law, or if they don’t like the laws their government is enacting—or if they don’t like the way the guy across the street is looking at them when they go out for a stroll with their fully loaded Glock tucked into their belt under their shirt—they can take matters into their own hands and eliminate these impediments to freedom by out-gunning them in any confrontation.

The National Rifle Association wants nothing less than to replace the rule of law in the United States with the law of the jungle. To borrow a phrase from Speaker Ryan, that is the “textbook definition” of extremism.

It’s time for the profiles in cowardice now sitting in Congress to stand up to their paymasters in the NRA and take urgent action on behalf of all Americans, eliminating weapons of war from anyone’s shopping cart. If this Congress doesn’t have the stomach to get this done, we’ll have the opportunity in November to replace it with people who will. 

We’re not going to pretend that an assault weapons ban alone will prevent people bent on mass murder from getting their hands on military-grade hardware, since thousands of people already own these weapons and there’s a black market in the U.S. for just about anything. So let’s also raise the bar a bit higher by requiring anyone already possessing a military-grade rifle to register this weapon in a database supervised by the FBI; gun shops, gun shows and websites that sell ammunition also should be required to report to the same database the purchase by anyone of large quantities of ammunition.

Anybody who thinks these requirements would impinge on anyone’s Constitutional rights should take a moment to remember that the Patriot Act already gives the president the authority to brand anyone on Earth—including American citizens—an “enemy combatant” who can be targeted with a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone. We’re fighting an existential threat from an apocalyptic death cult that does not want to live on the same planet with us, so yeah, we need to know where you keep your favorite AR-15. We promise we won’t take it away from you, but no, you can’t take it out of the house anymore and you can never buy another one.

Do all of the above and we’ll greatly improve the odds that the next time a bloodthirsty lunatic picks up his deadly new toys and heads for a theater or a nightclub or an office Christmas party full of Americans, America’s Finest will be right behind him, packing heat and ready to aim for dead center of the target, just like they were trained to do at the Academy in Quantico.