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By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2002, The Boston Globe

June 16, 2002

Put me down as an agnostic on the proposed Department of Homeland Security. Most of official and unofficial Washington is for it, but that is hardly a recommendation. I realize that ensuring the security of the homeland is critical, especially when we are at war with an enemy that specializes in killing civilians. But is rejiggering the federal bureaucracy and setting a new place at the Cabinet table the way to achieve that security? And is the middle of a war really the right time to stage a massive government reconfiguration?

Recently I came across a speech given by Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, at the Heritage Foundation last November. His subject was "Securing the Home Front in the 21st Century," and it was one he had been thinking about since well before Sept. 11.

In 1998, Gingrich was one of the organizers of the Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security. Two years before last September's attack, the commission warned that if changes weren't forthcoming, "Americans will die on American soil -- possibly in large numbers." Its final report, delivered in January 2001, called for creating a Cabinet-level department of homeland security.

For Gingrich, homeland security became something of a personal mission. Introducing him before his speech, Heritage president Ed Feulner said that on the night of Sept. 10, he and Gingrich had sat next to each other on a flight from Europe. "We had a long discussion on the way," Feulner recalled. "At one point he said to me, 'You know, you really ought to have your people over there take a closer look at homeland defense; we need to be doing a lot more in that area.' "

Gingrich began by observing that the United States has been in a state of war since 1983: Washington's most-wanted list of international terrorists includes someone "whose first activity killing Americans was the Marine barracks in Lebanon." What he didn't say but could have is that for the first 18 years of the war against terrorism, only the terrorists were fighting. The United States absorbed thousands of casualties between April 18, 1983, when the US embassy in Beirut was bombed, and Sept. 11, 2001. Not one was caused by the lack of a cabinet department.

I was struck by another Gingrich observation.

"Piracy was relatively common in the early 18th century," he told the Heritage audience. "By the end of the century, it had been totally wiped out because it became unacceptable. . . . People gradually came to the agreement that we won't tolerate it anymore." His point was that it is crucial to keep driving home the message that terrorism is intolerable.

But I draw a different conclusion. Presumably piracy had always been "unacceptable" and presumably the governments of afflicted nations had always resented it. What removed that scourge from the face of the earth was not a PR campaign or a bureaucratic reorganization but a determination to hunt down and kill pirates. We will likewise end the scourge of Islamist terror only by hunting down and killing terrorists and toppling the regimes that sustain them.

Is that the US plan? President Bush has been saying so -- in his speech proposing the new Cabinet department, he noted that "the first and best way to secure America's homeland is to attack the enemy where he hides and plans." A few days earlier, at West Point, he was even more emphatic: "The war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge."

Yet nine months post-Sept. 11, it is surely time to stop telling us that we must take the battle to the enemy and actually begin taking the battle to the enemy. Other than liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban, what has the war accomplished so far? The routing of the criminal government in Kabul was an excellent thing, but has the threat of a massive terror attack been lessened even slightly? The Bush administration keeps warning that another Sept. 11 can happen at any time.

I'm willing to accept that rewiring the Washington bureaucracy might lead to a more focused and rational homeland defense. Perhaps putting 22 government agencies with domestic security functions under one roof, as analyst James Robbins writes for National Review, really "is certain to have beneficial morale effects that cannot be summarized on spreadsheets."

But will it do anything to demolish Saddam Hussein's terror-sponsoring regime, or the ones in Teheran and Damascus? Will it help in tracking down and obliterating the Islamists' training camps? Will it rid the world of any illegal caches of biological or chemical weapons? Will it shut down Pakistan's jihad factories, or the pipeline of Saudi money that funds them?

From a management perspective, a new Department of Homeland Security may make sense. From a homeland-security perspective, it is tangential. Ultimately there is just one way to secure the homeland, and that is by destroying the enemy. Let's get on with it.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.
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