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Homeland Security: Mixed Results

In the almost year since the terrorist attacks against the United States, the anti-terror war has had mixed results.

The military did well in Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban in record time. The absence of major new attacks suggests, though it does not prove, that homeland security efforts may be doing some good.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good news stops. Victory in Afghanistan has, so far, not been followed up by military action against other supporters of terrorism. Cooperation from Arab regimes, and particularly from the Saudi royal family, in shutting down the finances of Al Qaeda has been limited at best. Homeland security has, by all appearances, been somewhere between a joke and a threat.

The jokey side of homeland security has been evident in such dumb measures as the confiscation of tweezers, corkscrews, and other harmless implements from airline passengers, and -- in less-funny form -- in the unserious response to the July shooting at Los Angeles International airport.

Recently, there have been a few minor signs that good sense is returning: the abandonment of a policy that forced mothers to drink breast milk before boarding aircraft, and the elimination of a couple of dumb questions from airline check-in procedures. But there’s a long way to go before airline security will be anything more than a hassle. Even Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, a favorite target of air security critics, has admitted that air security efforts have no credibility.

Though not really funny, there’s a certain Keystone Kops angle to the Moussaoui investigation, too, as Congressional investigators have discovered. FBI investigators misunderstood the law, and were thus too slow to search Moussaoui even though the evidence in their possession was more than sufficient. The bureaucratic resistance to searching Moussaoui was so great that field agents in Minnesota wondered -- before Sept. 11 -- if Usama bin Laden had a mole in Bureau headquarters.

The "threat" part is illustrated by the assignment of agents implicated in cover-ups in the Waco and Ruby Ridge incidents to important Homeland Security investigations. Add to this the behavior of the FBI and the Justice Department in the Steven Hatfill anthrax investigation, and you’ve got a real problem: how can we trust the government with the new powers it wants when it’s done such a disappointing job with the ones it already has?

Hatfill may or may not turn out to be guilty. But while that issue remains in doubt, there’s not much doubt that the FBI has bungled his case. Though investigations are supposed to be confidential, the FBI has leaked like a sieve concerning Hatfill -- just as it did when investigating Richard Jewell and Wen Ho Lee.

Such leaks are generally thought to be a tactic for putting pressure on a suspect. If so, they’re an ineffective one -- as demonstrated by the Hatfill, Jewell, and Wen Ho Lee cases.

Or, I suppose, these leaks could be designed to give the illusion of progress in an investigation that is in fact stalled -- meaning that the investigators have reason to doubt Hatfill’s guilt, but are smearing him for short-term political gain. That would be appalling.

The other possibility is that there’s no ulterior motive -- it’s just that the people at the FBI and the Department of Justice are so undisciplined that they just can’t keep their mouths shut, even in a major investigation involving important issues of national security. That doesn’t look very good, either.

If Hatfill is innocent, then the FBI has ruined the reputation of an innocent man. If he’s guilty, on the other hand, all these leaks -- and his angry public response to them -- will make subsequent prosecution look politically motivated, thus weakening the government’s position in this case and diminishing its credibility in other cases. Nor is it likely that anyone inside the agencies will be punished: the Bureau announced that it was investigating the leaks in the Richard Jewell case, but apparently it has done so with the same degree of enthusiasm that has marked O.J. Simpson’s search for the "real killers."

Meanwhile, as I mentioned above, agents suspected of wrongdoing in earlier scandals are now heading up important investigations. That does little to inspire confidence in the agency's trustworthiness today.

Making things worse is the lack of any sign of a shake-up in the agencies responsible for protecting us from foreign terror despite major mistakes. When field agents investigating a suspected terrorist joke that there must be a mole in FBI headquarters -- and when there is then a major terrorist attack that might have been prevented had the investigation gone ahead – one might expect to see the people who dropped the ball sacked. But there’s no evidence that the FBI has disciplined anyone for incompetence. In fact, there’s little evidence that those tasked with homeland security have engaged in any serious efforts at analyzing the failures before Sept. 11.

The FBI is also experiencing serious problems working in non-English-speaking countries, but efforts to recruit people with foreign-language skills appear to be running into problems caused by Nancy Reagan-era "just say no" rules preventing agencies from hiring people who smoked pot in college. Yet nothing has been done to address the impact of these outmoded rules on important national security concerns.

So a year after Sept. 11 we’re left with big and not-very-effective law enforcement bureaucracies that want more power, but show no signs of more accountability, promising to protect us against a terrorist threat while showing no great evidence of learning from past mistakes, or adjusting old policies in order to meet new threats. Somehow, I don’t feel safer.

Before Congress appropriates more money to fund the terror war, it should demand explanations -- and action -- from those who have been tasked with fighting it. So far, things don’t look good.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee and publishes InstaPundit.Com. He is co-author, with Peter W. Morgan, of The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society (The Free Press, 1997).

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