Archive for September, 2005

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

In the 2004 election, George Bush sold us on the premise that he, better than John Kerry, could protect us from another attack.  We will never know if that is true, however, under his guidance, we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars, completely rearranged all those elements of the Federal government that had anything to do with security of our homeland, conducted hours and hours of congressional and other hearings and invaded Iraq – all on the premise that it would make us safer at home.  In that regard, a 2005 Gallup poll says that 60% of Americans believe that we are now more vulnerable to terrorism.

We are now four years past the horrors of 9/11.   This country has changed incredibly in that period of time.  Since the stated purpose of all these changes has been to forestall a repeat of 9/11 and, failing that, to respond effectively to any given incident, the question we must now ask ourselves is how effective our disaster response has been.

In the broader sense, Katrina has exposed how unprepared this country is to deal with the aftermath of another 9/ll.   All the whoopla, politicking, showboating, rearranging of the government – everything that was done to “protect” us from the next terrorist attack (which most certainly will come) – has been exposed by our experience with the aftermath of Katrina as totally inadequate for the needs of the population.     One of the most important functions of government is to protect its citizens from things from which they are unable to protect themselves.  Clearly, government as constituted in America in 2005 has not.

Things have been so bad on the Gulf Coast that one has to wonder if there ever really was a plan for dealing with this kind of disaster.  We know that a catastrophic hurricane been predicted for some time.  The New Orleans Times Picayune ran a series in 2002 which almost perfectly laid out the scenario that came to pass.  Most experts agreed.  Why did no one figure out that there were thousands in New Orleans who simply did not have the wherewithal to evacuate?  We have been told that many problems were created because of a lack of effective communications.  With the foreknowledge that cell phones would not work under the Times Picayune scenario, why did none of our planners consider satellite phones? If flooding was a certainty, why were there no plans for a massive use of boats and helicopters?  Right away, that is – not days after the fact.

There have been clear problems in coordination between Local, State and Federal governments.  Regardless of what the President says to mitigate the Federal complicity in this ongoing catastrophe, we have to believe that as a nation we are capable of doing much better.   In the context of terrorism, it doesn’t matter how well the response ends.   What really matters when terrorists hit is how quickly and effectively the response begins and how many lives are spared.

Apparently thousands of people on the Gulf Coast have perished, some of whom, it is alleged, could have been saved by a better organized, earlier, more effective response.   Additionally, it is said that there are probably many people still in their attics or hidden elsewhere who, in the absence of a timely and thorough search effort, are equally likely to die.  In short, it is predicted that thousands will have perished by the time a body count is completed, many of them needlessly.

Unlike 9/11, this can’t be attributed to an intelligence failure.  For Katrina, we had the best possible intelligence provided by satellite photography, hurricane fly-throughs and climatological and meteorological input and analysis.  The analysts even got the impact point right.  More importantly, they gave us a week’s warning that something really bad was going to happen.  Despite that clear, scientific finding, our collective government blew it.

What will happen with the next terrorist attack on America?  With the exception of the Irish Republican Army (a relatively benevolent terrorist group) in its battle with the UK, terrorists are generally not given to announcing their mayhem in advance.  Even with advanced warning on Katrina, we really blew it.  As critical as the prevention of terrorist attacks is, the issue underlined by the Katrina experience is, what is our government going to do to mitigate the aftermath of the next terrorist disaster?

If this pathetic performance on Katrina is an indicator of what four years of planning and billions of dollars have done for us, we are in a world of hurt. Just wait till the really bad guys get after us again.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served, inter alia, in Europe and the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff in Langley.  He lives in Williston, Vt.

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