Is the United States taking its eye off security of the homeland in the face of increasing instability across the world?
One of Virginia’s leading homeland security experts fears so.
“From a national standpoint, we are distracted,” said George W. Foresman, former federal undersecretary for preparedness and Virginia’s former top homeland security official.
The distractions include increased instability abroad — from the Middle East to Ukraine — and budget stress at home. Homeland security funding has waned for state and local governments, and so, Foresman fears, has the “operational mind-set” that pulled security agencies at all levels of government together after terrorist attacks killed almost 3,000 people in Arlington County, New York and Shanksville, Pa., 13 years ago today.
“Are we losing our competitive edge … to stay ahead of the bad guys, whether they’re local bad guys or international bad guys?” asked Foresman, now a homeland security and preparedness consultant based in Charlottesville.
Concern over potential threats from home-grown terrorists has increased with the attacks at the Boston Marathon last year by Chechen brothers living in Massachusetts, as well as the apparent role of Britons in the recent executions of American journalists in Syria.
There are growing worries about “low-grade terrorists, those who have gone to the dark side, who are operating in the U.S.,” said Hollis Stambaugh, a Fairfax County homeland security consultant who is involved in the pending report on the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and wounded more than 260.
The after-action review, commissioned by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, has focused on preparedness and response to the bombing, not the brothers who allegedly carried it out. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a shootout with police and his younger brother Dzhokhar was captured after an intense manhunt and charged with capital murder. He is awaiting trial.
The consultants carrying out the review weren’t allowed access to FBI records or police intelligence regarding the background of the brothers, who were born in two republics within the former Soviet Union and immigrants to the U.S. with their family. “We were not allowed to look at the background of the suspects,” Stambaugh said.
The guarding of classified security information remains a challenge for state and local officials in preventing terrorist incidents to which they must respond first, she said. “We still run into the problem of those who know at the federal level being able and willing to share (information) downstream.”
The national commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “highlighted the lack of information sharing, the stove-piping, that occurred before 9/11, and that’s still happening,” said Denise Rucker Krepp, former senior counsel to the House Homeland Security Committee and author of rail security provisions included in the 2007 law that implemented commission findings.
For example, Krepp is concerned that security plans between federal agencies and railroad companies are not being shared with state and local emergency officials that she said must be involved in training exercises to carry them out.
“There is a lack of information sharing, and because of the lack of information sharing, people are still not prepared for the incidents,” she said.
A top rail industry security official disputed her conclusions. “The premise is flawed for anyone to assert that (training) exercises haven’t happened and information isn’t provided,” said Thomas Farmer, assistant vice president for security at the American Association of Railroads.
Farmer said the industry responded quickly after the 2001 terrorist attacks with a rail security plan for hazardous waste shipments. “We’ve worked very hard in this industry to maintain a high level of vigilance and preparedness for these kinds of events,” he said.
However, he confirmed that rail security plans that the industry and federal agencies will test with training exercises next month are not shared with state and local governments. “That is protected as sensitive security information,” he said.
Foresman, appointed by then-President George W. Bush as the first undersecretary of preparedness, is less concerned about lack of information sharing than he was after the terrorist attacks. “Compared to where we were on Sept. 10, 2001, and where we are today, we are phenomenally better,” he said.
Foresman cites the performance of the Virginia Fusion Center operated by state police and the Department of Emergency Management to collect, analyze and share information about potential security threats.
A report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission last fall commended the work of the fusion center and emphasized the need to plan for a wide range of potential disasters.
“More than a decade after 9/11, Virginia remains at risk for terrorist attacks involving methods such as improvised explosive devices, mass shootings, anthrax releases and multiple coordinated attacks,” states the JLARC report, released in October.
“The nature and potential impact of the disasters facing Virginia are evolving, as rising sea levels could result in more frequent and more severe flooding in coastal areas, and the threat of terrorism has evolved to also include U.S.-born extremists and lone actors loosely affiliated or inspired by al-Qaida,” the report says.
Defining terrorism is important, said Stambaugh, who has produced after-action reports on mass killings, including massacres at Virginia Tech in 2007, Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, and a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in 2012.
“It is pre-planned; it is acted out against innocents; there are multiple casualties,” she said.
Stambaugh would not discuss the findings of the Boston Marathon report until it is released, but she said generally that emergency preparedness planning and training is essential for states and localities.
“It pays off, clearly,” she said.
Stambaugh also said that since the massacre of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech, universities and other institutions have become more “aware of the need to reach out with as much information as possible to as many people as possible.”
Foresman staffed a national terrorism commission led by then-Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore in the late 1990s, when he said the country also was distracted by foreign and domestic upheavals from focusing on homeland security vulnerabilities.
“We are light years ahead today (of where) we were 15 years ago,” he said, “but the momentum can be interrupted.