March 2003 | Commentary | Checking In

All Across the Angry Seas

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We've heard for the last two decades that the world is getting smaller. Not anymore. Distances across angry seas are greater than those across peaceful seas. Cultural differences, political differences, and security concerns have raised formidable impediments to the trade and tranquility that bind the world together.

And so we struggle to secure our homeland. While homeland security measures are necessary, an unintended consequence of the new regulations and procedures will be to impede the global trade largely responsible for making the world smaller.

On Paperwork

Yet we must do something. But what exactly are we doing? Will inspections, paperwork, mega-bureaucracy be effective?

Jim Gilmore says no. The former Virginia governor predicted at the U.S. Customs Trade Symposium recently that the new Department of Homeland Security would add two volumes to the Code of Federal Regulations. Even if they added 10 volumes, there are still many other ways to attack our homeland besides our transportation network. Trusting homeland security to regulations and red tape alone is only a partial answer and can easily be turned into a conveyance to provide a false sense of security.

Disagree? Then you've never sat next to anyone filling out the current required paperwork. Does paperwork stop every illegal drug shipment coming into our country? Does anybody doubt that thousands of stolen automobiles are shipped out of U.S. ports in containers each year? Does paperwork stop that?

It is the nature of government bureaucracies to tackle problems with paperwork. But recent experience shows another part of government bureaucracy's nature hampers effectiveness, regardless of how much paperwork and regulations exist.

We are all familiar with one government bureaucracy with pretty good credentials that had good paper trails to follow before the terrorist attack. Yet one bureaucrat in headquarters decided not to crack open Zacharias Mousouri's laptop. He misunderstood a "legal precedent" and used that as the basis to ignore warnings from his own field agents.

That same bureaucracy, knowing that a few short years ago al-Qaida operatives were convicted in absentia for a plot to fly a plane into CIA headquarters, ignored numerous written reports from its own field agents about eerily similar actions by suspicious foreign nationals. Frustrated field agents who broke the chain of command when written reports were ignored were rebuked. Verbal warnings were ignored as well. All this from one of the "better" bureaucracies.

Despite a paper trail a mile wide, another government bureaucracy, charged with keeping dangerous people out of America, posthumously gives an imprimatur of entry to those who carried out the Sept. 11 attack. This same agency today is giving the New York City Police Department fits, citing high costs and requiring convoluted and contradictory red tape procedures as the reason it cannot deport criminals with suspected terrorist ties.

Perhaps bureaucrats at the INS have their reasons, but my friends in the NYPD just don't understand. The answer is simple: It's what government bureaucracies do.

On Inspections

There is more. Witness N.Y. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who is more given to grandstanding to his not-so-swift constituents than offering anything of value to this discussion. His recent bill, HR 1010, proposes that the Department of Homeland Security hire inspectors to examine six million inbound ocean containers at the port of origin, and have the U.S. Coast Guard board and inspect every inbound ship 200 miles out to recertify the containers and determine that the vessel does not contain a "chemical, biological or nuclear weapon."

Hey, Congressman Nadler: You forgot about the one million-plus inbound air shipments. And what about all the trucks and cars coming across the border from Canada and Mexico? No one can be that obtuse, even in Congress, can they?

"As we learned centuries ago, communities cannot protect themselves from the plague—or terrorism—by closing the town gates," says John Simpson, president of The American Association of Exporters and Importers. It is irresponsible to suggest that the immense job of securing the homeland can be handled by papering over the problem with more and bigger bureaucracies, more red tape and more paperwork. Because we are not threatened by paper, a wall of paper around America won't do much.

Standing at Ground Zero catching teardrops in our hands is not going to solve it either. Deep down inside I think we all know that even though the cost is high, there is one government "bureaucracy" (that relies on paper, but on power too) that can do more to secure our homeland.

Cutting off the problem at the source aggressively, relentlessly—that's a key milemarker on the path to homeland security.


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