Candidates Offer Homeland Security Plans

Editor's note: This article is the seventh in a series on issues in the 2004 presidential campaign.

President Bush says he has made the nation safer. Democratic opponent John Kerry says the president has been asleep at the wheel. But Homeland Security analysts say when you take an in-depth look at the presidential candidates' platforms, they are strikingly similar.

"The differences are mainly in emphasis," said David Silverberg, editor of Homeland Security Today (search). "Both have to defend the country. Both have to work within budgets. The latitude is not that great for radical changes."

While port security, baggage screening and intelligence reform may not make for good campaign sound bites, voters do care a great deal about homeland security. The problem for the candidates, however, is that the voters get lost in the details.

On Monday, Kerry appealed to the big picture — voters' sense of safety — by attacking the president over news reports that 380 tons of explosives went missing from Iraq after Saddam Hussein (search) was ousted in April 2003.

“George W. Bush, who talks tough and brags about making America safer, has once again failed to deliver. After being warned about the danger of major stockpiles of explosives in Iraq, this administration failed to guard those stockpiles," Kerry said in a speech in New Hampshire. “Terrorists could use this material to kill our troops and our people, blow up airplanes and level buildings." 

Bush, however, argues that the United States is safer today than it was on Sept. 11, 2001. Last week, Bush signed a $33 billion Department of Homeland Security budget that aims to shore up the nation's borders, inspect incoming cargo, protect potential terror targets and train first responders.

"Bush just pounds home the message that we're safer because of what he's done," said Silverberg, whose October issue of Homeland Security Today covers the differences between Bush and Kerry on this topic. "You can make the argument that he hasn't done enough, but I don't know how much it's going to resonate with the voters" because few are focused on the details of homeland security policy.

Still, the candidates have tried to reach out to voters on this topic.

Kerry says he would do a better job of improving intelligence. He would establish a separate service within the FBI dedicated to intelligence work. He would accelerate the improvement and integration of key watch lists and databases so they operate quickly and seamlessly, and he supports the creation of a national intelligence director post.

Bush pledged to continue to reform intelligence by moving toward an integrated, unified national intelligence effort. Bush has backed the Senate version of intelligence reform that calls for a national intelligence director with authority over much of the intelligence budget, even that which is used for Pentagon activities. Bush says he would improve the quality and quantity of human intelligence collection. He also says that his leadership has led to a transformation in the tactics and culture of the FBI, making the prevention of terrorist attacks the FBI's first priority.

Silverberg said he believes the candidates are actually fairly close on intelligence reform because they are both building on the recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission (search).

"I don't have the sense that they're really radically different," he said.

Port security and air cargo security as well as first responder funding are areas on which Kerry regularly hammers Bush. Kerry says he would make sure screenings at airports continue to become more effective. Kerry would provide more funding to first responders and make sure police officers and firefighters have the communications systems, protective gear and manpower they need.

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute (search), said Kerry has an opportunity to score some points here.

"He needs to suggest to people that this administration has left large holes in our homeland defenses that urgently need to be plugged," Marshall said. "Just as the administration isn't leveling with us on the difficulties we are facing in Iraq, it isn't quite leveling on the holes we have on the home front."

Kerry says he would provide better security to nuclear and chemical plants. He charges that the security at chemical plants has not been hardened because the White House has been too accommodating to the chemical industry. He would also strengthen security on railways and subways by putting more chemical and biological detectors in place. Through Project BioShield, Bush has pledged to fund cutting-edge countermeasures against a biological, chemical, nuclear, or radiological attack.

One key difference in homeland security policy is that Kerry has expressed serious concerns about Bush's civil liberties stance. Bush points to the Patriot Act as a significant accomplishment in his first term. He has said the legislation gave law enforcement and intelligence officers the ability to communicate and coordinate in anti-terror efforts. Bush has promised to renew the critical provisions of the Patriot Act, which are set to sunset.

Kerry said he believes some provisions of the Patriot Act (search), such as those concerning money laundering, must be made stronger. To better protect privacy, he wants the so-called "sneak-and-peek" search provisions to be changed.

Silverberg said he is skeptical about how much Kerry's civil liberties criticism would resonate.

"How many people really feel their civil liberties have been infringed? I don't think it's that many people," he said.

James Jay Carafano, a Heritage Foundation (search) national security expert, also doubted that civil liberties questions and other aspects of homeland security would play a major role in the campaign.

"The right way to address these problems doesn't really make good campaign rhetoric," Carafano said. "These are really kind of nuts and bolts things, bureaucratic, inside Washington things."

Naming one example, Carafano cited a reform that he believes is necessary. "Can you imagine a presidential debate over whether there should be an undersecretary of policy for Homeland Security?"

Carafano said he does not believe homeland security strategies would vary that much. "Theoretically, what would homeland security look like in a Kerry administration compared to a Bush administration? My overall answer is it wouldn't look so different."

Although Silverberg largely agreed, he did name one significant difference.

"Bush is very outward looking. He wants to take the fight overseas," Silverberg said. "Kerry would be more domestically oriented ... more of an emphasis here at home," he said.