States Sept. 11 Response Draws Kudos, Criticism
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
Since the devastating attacks nearly a year ago that plunged the country into a war against terrorism, it has become clear that states have a major role to play in improving homeland security. How well are they doing? In this, the first of a series of Stateline.org reports, we provide a broad overview of what has been done in the last 12 months.
Poor airport security, dramatic flaws in counter-terrorism intelligence and a multitude of other problems left America vulnerable to attack by al Qaeda operatives on September 11, 2001.
That has become clear in the year since more than 3,000 people lost their lives when three passenger jets taken over by terrorists felled the twin towers of the World Trade Center and crumpled the Pentagon in Northern Virginia. A fourth that may have been bound for the U.S. Capitol or the White House crashed into an open Pennsylvania field after the passengers fought the hijackers.
What also became clear is the importance of state government in responding to the threat of further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
Numerous reports in the last 12 months have catalogued the failures that led to 9/11 and identified issues that fall largely under state control: paralyzing shortcomings of emergency radio communications, unclear chains of command, aging emergency response plans, a lack of controls on the issuing of drivers' licenses and other official documents that permit identity fraud and inadequate terror-related training for first responders.
Other issues involving state government include neglect of the public health system, lax regulation of the transport of hazardous materials and porous security at dams, reservoirs, sensitive labs and nuclear power facilities.
Today, Stateline.org begins "Strengthened States?" a series of articles examining the states' response to 9/11 and the status of their efforts to protect the public in the event of future terrorist attacks.
Public officials and policy analysts say state governments have made progress in marshalling money and manpower to deal with a threat that few anticipated just one summer ago.
One example: new legislation in Iowa authorizing counties to enter into mutual aid compacts much like the one now governing interstate emergency assistance in all but three states. (California, Hawaii and Wyoming are the three holdouts.)
"That's exactly the sort of thing that needs to be done. There's a tremendous amount of communication among agencies and between levels of government, a quantum leap from what existed before," Arnold Howitt, the executive director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard University, told Stateline.org.
But analysts caution the scope of the threat is so great that what's been done thus far is just a start.
"It's not easy to turn the proverbial oil tanker around on a dime, recognizing that what we're trying to deal with here is changing long-standing relationships, government roles and responsibilities," said Paul Posner, who directs budget studies for the General Accounting Office.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who acquired valuable first-hand experience dealing with the attack on the Pentagon and who continues to lead a congressional advisory panel on terrorism, agrees. "The real challenge lies ahead," he said.
Gilmore said the challenge includes "getting (federal) money flowing" to states and localities for the equipment, training and public health capacity they'd need to diminish the impact of a biological, chemical or radiological attack.
Over the last three years, the federal government has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to states for emergency response programs. Billions more are expected this fall when Congress acts on President Bush's spending proposals for the coming fiscal year.
But a federal audit conducted this spring found that administrative problems are keeping these funds from being spent effectively.
Iowa emergency management director Ellen Goodman said the federal emergency equipment grants revealed fundamental inequities among local responders.
"We're buying some specialized equipment. But when we rolled out [our] equipment grant program, there was (an outcry) from communities who wondered why would we want this when we don't even have basic protective equipment."
On the public health side, state agencies mobilized quickly to claim the supplemental bioterror funds Congress approved in January but are still deciding how to use them.
Edward Sharkey, a political science professor at South Carolina's Columbia College, said the states could have come up with more money for security initiatives after 9/11, but largely stuck with other priorities in a tight budget year.
"The states play an incredibly important role at least in domestic events. I would think there would be more resources allocated to at least making sure we were ready ... It would have involved some tough choices," Sharkey said.
Part of the problem appears to be a lack of clear federal guidance. Kendra Stewart, a public administration professor at Eastern Kentucky University who conducted a survey of state homeland security directors over the summer, found that "a majority of states that have responded listed the lack of federal direction as a major factor limiting their state's response to 9/11."
Another factor is the decline in public interest. In recent months, the threat of terrorism has receded from the headlines, replaced by a media frenzy over such matters as corporate scandals, missing children and deadly mosquitoes. "I think a big problem is convincing legislators and the public at large that there's a threat," Idaho state Sen. Denton Darrington (R), a member of the National Conference of State Legislature's Task Force on Protecting Democracy, said in an interview.
Massachusetts state Sen. Richard Moore (D), the NCSL panel's chairman, said he has yet to hear from a single constituent asking the legislature to address problems in his state.
"People are assuming that we're taking care of everything. It's too trusting an attitude in a way," he said.