Never Say Never

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Never Say ‘Never Again’ – Foreign Policy

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Security Theater. Bin Laden Is Dead. Bush as early as Sept. It is as vague as it is damaging. It convinced us that invulnerability was a possibility.


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The notion that policies should focus almost exclusively on preventing the next attack has also masked an ideological battle within homeland-security policy circles between "never again" and its antithesis, commonly referred to as "shit happens" but in polite company known as "resiliency. Time has not only eased the pain of that day, but there have also been no significant attacks.

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I have spent most of my career in counterterrorism and homeland security in both state and federal government. And though it may look thoughtless, even numbingly dumb at times, there is actually a theory behind it. Homeland security has rested on four key activities: prevention, protection, response, and recovery.

And while the U. Department of Homeland Security DHS — created in out of some 40 agencies — is part of the national security apparatus, it is as much about the "homeland" as it is about "security. There is little acknowledgment of the almost impossible balance that homeland security seeks to maintain every day.

A country like the United States — a federal structure with 50 governors all kings unto themselves, hundreds of cities with transit systems that only function when on time, commercial activity across borders that makes Amazon. But "never again" would hear none of it, though it soon became clear that doing "everything possible" to prevent another attack was a lot, probably too much, and very, very expensive. The die had been set; the way we talked about homeland security no longer was some attempt to balance security needs with everything else or to prepare the public for the inevitable harm and the need to be resilient.

But "never again" was not just fiscally outrageous; it was, somewhat ironically, myopic in its scope. In , Hurricane Katrina came barreling through New Orleans and the Gulf states and reminded us that a country too focused on one threat was surely going to miss the more common, and blameless, ones. Perhaps the worst legacy of this exclusive focus on prevention was that it bred a nearly unstoppable institutional inertia. It made changes, modifications, reassessments, even total abandonment almost impossible to discuss, let alone enforce.

What should have been an easy example — the vilified color-coded system that had been publicly rejected by former Secretaries of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge — took DHS over a year to amend. Ratcheting up is easy, ratcheting down not so much. For political leadership, the fear that the antiquated policy or unsuccessful program that is defunded or rejected ends up being the one policy or program that would have stopped the terrorists — a fear that has sometimes been manipulated by local and state first responders during budget decisions — has paralyzed the kind of analysis that is routine in other public policy arenas.

As he remarked on the obvious, that the bridge near his suburban home was not as significant as the Golden Gate Bridge, he faced a barrage of criticism from, mostly, senators who lived near suburban bridges.

Coca-Cola’s top marketer: we'll ‘never say never’ to marijuana-infused drinks

I saw the phenomenon up close when I entered state government as Gov. At that time, 19 members of the National Guard, deployed in late , were still sitting outside our only nuclear facility in Pilgrim, Massachusetts. Removing those National Guard members was not operationally questionable — if anything, their armed presence in a residential neighborhood was more troublesome — but it was politically difficult.

As we heard about the multiple programs, assessments, and policies that the exiting regime had established, and were clamoring to protect, it became clear that "change" was going to be slow and methodical. Every piece of the homeland security pie had a constituency that believed that this one program you name it, because there are plenty was the reason why America had not been attacked again and that removing it would endanger the whole nation. It is not easy to prove them wrong.

But the limitations and delusions inherent in "never again" are surely taking a beating. This has been necessary because of how destructive that term has become to the very apparatus established to enforce it.

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One such shift has been in the acceptance of an "all-hazards" approach to emergency management planning, with an emphasis on areas that pose the greatest risk. When DHS started to distribute funds to state and local governments, it was animated by the notion that terrorism anywhere, anytime had to be prevented.

While that may have led to nice new cars for a willing police department, often the approach had no coherent philosophy behind it. The Office of Management and Budget hated the program for that reason: what exactly were state and localities buying with this money? By , though, and more aggressively since then, funding to states and local governments shifted from new gizmos and counterterrorism planning to approaches that would be relevant for any threat and any known response. By this year, the department had so modified what it was willing to fund that it explicitly focused its guidance on "mitigating and responding to the evolving threats," without a mention of preventing terrorism.

The department had once, at its peak, considered nearly cities — ranging from New York City to Bakersfield, California — as high-threat areas that would be granted additional funding. This year, the number is a much more realistic 31 high-density areas. In addition, the department no longer pretends it is something it is not. It created a mythology that politicians and terrorism experts have been allowed to ride for over a decade: The government could actually achieve perfect protection.

It gave the American people an easy out, absolving them of responsibility. The famous utterance by Secretary Janet Napolitano, my former boss, that the "system worked" in explaining how a passenger stopped the underwear bomber in December may have been criticized, but it was utterly honest. Why would we be offended by it unless we had handed government all our own responsibilities as citizens, as well as our expectations for perfect safety? There are 1. Honestly, grow up.

It is an admission by the agency formed to enforce "never again" that it is now delegating. They focus on their own children, their local schools, the options available to them, and the options they can afford. The Education Department sends money to state and local entities, sets standards, and enforces areas that are exclusively in the federal domain. But no one thinks the department owns education. The same could be true for homeland security. Phrases like "first 72 on you" a motto emergency managers use to urge the public to plan for the possibility that services will not be restored after a disaster for at least three days, and so to have food, water, and resources available at home or the more controversial "see something, say something" which is self-descriptive and came into play when a car bomb started to smoke in Times Square in May are essential efforts to engage the public.

But the most significant shift has been in the institutionalization of resiliency as a core mission of homeland security and the department. The National Security Council has a resiliency directorate, and the DHS has explicitly reoriented its mission to make resiliency a fifth core function beyond prevention, protection, response, and recovery. This may sound like bureaucratic lingo, but the reality is that much of what the federal government does is to help communities get back on their feet after a disaster. This includes providing quick access to funding, planning procedures to ensure adequate and inclusive local efforts, and ensuring that essential services are functioning so that communities can begin to rebuild.

And after each disaster, levees are built stronger, sheltering facilities are made more livable, and access to emergency funds are made more efficient — because there will always be a next time. I saw the same sentiment play out when I served on the leadership of the National Incident Command, the ad hoc entity established to deal with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

It looked ugly, I know, but over two years later, at the fear of sounding like a BP ad campaign, the Gulf thrives. Everyone working the spill knew that within weeks of the rig going down and the blowout preventer failing, there were going to be oiled pelicans.