5 Things We Need to Know Before the Next Terror Attack

In 1999 while I was governor of Virginia I was asked by the federal government to chair the National Commission on Homeland Security (The Gilmore Commission). The Commission issued five annual reports, three of which were completed prior to the 9/11 attacks. In 1999 the first sentence of our first report described terrorism as a "genuine threat." We stated that a national strategy to address the threat was "urgently needed." In 2000, we said the danger of a terrorist attack in the United States was "a serious emerging threat." Our third report was essentially completed before the 9/11 attack and set out the major initiatives necessary to protect the country.

Now, eight years later, the American people are entitled to a report on how far we have progressed on these initiatives. First, the Commission urged that a national response plan put emphasis on local responders and enabling states to be ready for an attack. The federal government has a key support role in a national emergency but their real duty is to get planning and resources to the local response community. However, the Hurricane Katrina response underscored federal responsibility. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security asserts federal predominance in what should be a state and local response. Where do we stand on local preparedness? Is it also time to assess whether the Department of Homeland Security is the best vehicle for organizing the national response to terrorist threats and natural disasters.

Second, have we settled on the proper role for the U.S. military in such a response? If  local responders are not ready, our president will be forced to turn to the military to take over the entire response. This is an exceedingly dangerous threat to the American tradition of not using the our military domestically. The American public needs a report. Have we quietly admitted that the local responders can't meet the challenge and that martial law is a possibility in a time of crisis? Is this the response plan we want?

Third, our Commission emphasized the danger of an unsecure border. Eight years later the threat from drug gangs and illegal border crossings is greater. We are addressing the dilemma of running an ever richer welfare state while granting benefits to anyone who can get here, legally or not. We already know that gangs break our immigration and drug laws for money. What if the "coyotes" bring in a weapon of mass destruction in return for payment? Are we ready for this possibility?

Fourth, is our public health system ready to deal with a pandemic or deliberate biological attack? The current health debate is about whether we should offer health care to everyone in the United States and who will pay for it. But we also need to know the status of public health planning in case of an attack.

Finally, are we ready for a cyber-attack that might impair much of society and disable our response to an attack? There are constant reports of cyber attacks even from other countries. The public needs to know whether defensive plans are in place and what they as citizens should do if a cyber attack is successful.

In addition to an getting an account of our current preparedness the public needs to be mentally prepared for another attack. A free country can never be totally secure from a determined and well-financed enemy. It is essential that the public not be stampeded by our continuous high-pitched media reporting or by uncertainty about the role of every citizen in another terror attack. Participation and knowledge will inspire confidence in the face of an attack. True public knowledge and peace of mind will minimize the pressure on the government to over-react and diminish our liberties to show "decisive action."

Although we have started down some dangerous paths, so far, we have come through the global terrorist conflict with our civil freedoms intact. Let's not let another attack start us back down the path to a situation that leads us to trade our freedoms for security. Public awareness of the threat, planned response, and the role of our citizens will ensure safety and freedom in the challenging years ahead.

Jim Gilmore was governor of Virginia from 1998-2002 and led the Commonwealth's response to the attack on the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.

Jim Gilmore, a Republican, served as the 68th governor of Virginia, and Chairman of the National Commission on Homeland Security. He is currently the Chairman of GrowthPAC.