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November 21, 2001

National commission warned of country's vulnerability to attacks, lecturer here says

Forewarned does not always mean forearmed. A bi-partisan commission studying national security had warned the federal government and Congress as early as 1999 that the United States was vulnerable to attacks on American soil, according to the commission's chief of staff.

Henry S. Scharpenberg, who served for the past three years on the recently disbanded U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century (USCNS), spoke at Pitt this week on national preparedness and security in the post-Sept. 11 world.

The Nov. 19 lecture was co-sponsored by Pitt and Carnegie Mellon.

"Did we predict that planes used as bombs would blow up our buildings? No. But we warned of terrorist attacks on our homeland that could result in many deaths."

Americans have their heads in the sand about security issues, Scharpenberg said, including the extent of their vulnerability, the dangers of cyber-terrorism, the view of war as a video game with no American casualties, and the chaos in the government in dealing with security.

"Who's in charge of security in this country? The answer is no one." That includes former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, head of the newly created Office of Homeland Security, who has a title and a staff of 100 but no budget, very little authority and no clear mandate, Scharpenberg said.

He said that USCNS was charged with describing the current world security situation including its technological, economic, military and diplomatic components; defining a national security strategy, and assessing existing national security structures and processes in order to recommend changes.

In the final USCNS report, issued last summer, "we made 50 major recommendations and a whole host of minor ones," Scharpenberg said. "We need to prioritize how money is spent, re-organize our institutional and governmental structures and clarify the role of Congress."

The commission recommended reorganizing the Department of State along functional and geographic lines; reforming the Department of Defense to cut down its layers of bureaucracy and redundancy and to be more open to sharing intelligence; abolishing the National Security Council and streamlining the Congressional committee system; promoting the development of space platforms and satellites where much of U.S. communications and military capabilities reside, and bolstering the intelligence community.

"The solution is not to just throw money at the defense department," Scharpenberg said. "National security is not only about defense and the Pentagon. We have a whole range of threats," including ballistic missiles and chemical, nuclear and biological weapons.

"In my opinion, cyber-terrorism is the most potentially threatening. We rely on our computer systems so much. Imagine if the entire FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) system for air-traffic control crashed one foggy day? I think it would be much worse than Sept. 11.

"How secure are our computer systems? I don't think anybody really knows." He said hackers access secure files all the time, while some files that should be secure are not.

"Cyber security offers the greatest adverse possibilities but is the least controllable. Right now, the FBI has a piece of this; Commerce has a piece; the GAO (General Accounting Office) has a piece. And the private sector has the biggest piece.

"Government can't dictate to the private sector, so there needs to be a partnership. I'd be the last person to suggest that government take over the Internet. But the private sector can work with the government to set up standards of what should be secure and how to make it secure. There could be new partnerships like a banking-federal group, a technology-federal group, an energy-federal group and so on."

The first step toward better national security, Scharpenberg maintained, is to tear down barriers between government agencies.

Domestic organizations such as the FBI, the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency don't talk to each other, let alone share intelligence, and there's no dialogue with the defense department, Scharpenberg said. As a result, things take too long to get done, agencies are duplicating work and the left hand doesn't know what the right's doing. "Sharing intelligence is the only way to make intelligence effective," he said.

The USCNS also recommended the creation of a National Homeland Security Agency that would oversee customs service, border patrol and the Coast Guard "to make our borders as tight as possible without crippling the economy."

The commission acknowledged that some personal freedoms in this country would be sacrificed in exchange for increased security, but, commission members maintained, that is a necessary consequence of combating terrorism.

Other recommendations included strengthening the national missile defense system, establishing computer-based infrastructure protections, employing counter-terrorism activities and improving terrorism consequence management.

Longer-range recommendations of the commission included: recruiting more and better-qualified science and technology teachers as well as government service workers; maintaining social cohesion among Americans; promoting better relations with foreign countries; pushing the global economy, and persuading the international community to tame the forces that promote terrorism.

About the only positive spin to put on the recent terrorist attacks, Scharpenberg said, is that the crisis may make the government act. "We have to combat bureaucratic inertia and sometimes a crisis is the only way people get serious about something. Public pressure is a must, and I think Americans are waking up to the reality of our world."

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 7

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