TCS Daily

Terror War? What Terror War?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 15, 2003 12:00 AM

I've been skeptical of "homeland security" for a long time. In fact, back on September 11, I warned:

It's Not Just Terrorists Who Take Advantage: Someone will propose new "Antiterrorism" legislation. It will be full of things off of bureaucrats' wish lists. They will be things that wouldn't have prevented these attacks even if they had been in place yesterday. Many of them will be civil-liberties disasters. Some of them will actually promote the kind of ill-feeling that breeds terrorism. That's what happened in 1996. Let's not let it happen again.

In other words, beware of bureaucratic opportunism, masquerading as antiterrorism. Now Tom Ridge is proving me right, with a new plan to pervert Homeland Security from its antiterror mission to an unrelated one: "The initiative, dubbed Operation Predator, will target pornographers, child prostitution rings, Internet predators, immigrant smugglers and other criminals."

What can we learn from this? Two things. One is that the Department of Homeland Security apparently thinks the War on Terror isn't important enough to occupy its full energies anymore, and that -- in the interest of bureaucratic survival -- it's branching out into the kind of operations that have generally been associated with, well, ordinary law enforcement, even if the targets, in this case, are foreigners.

I suppose that should be a relief, since it suggests that, at least in Tom Ridge's mind, we have little to fear from Osama's ilk anymore. On the other hand, I'm not comforted, because it proves that lesson two is alive and well: any powers confided to bureaucrats in the service of vital objectives will quickly be abused in the service of other, less important purposes.

Back when the Department of Homeland Security was first being discussed, we were told that such a department was necessary to ensure cooperation among diverse federal law enforcement agencies. Critics and skeptics feared that it would soon be turned from an antiterror agency into a general purpose federal police force, something that Americans have traditionally rejected. Ridge's mission-creep has made clear that the critics and skeptics were right all along.

Since Ridge has, with this initiative, essentially admitted that Homeland Security is no longer urgent enough to occupy the Department of Homeland Security, let's abolish the Department, and pass the savings on to the taxpayers. Not only will this save money, but it will serve as a salutary warning to future Tom Ridges that overstepping the bounds of a mandate is politically dangerous.

I'm not naive enough to think that this will happen, of course. But on the other hand, I regard this proposal as damning evidence -- if any more were needed -- of Tom Ridge's irrelevance to questions of domestic security. And I think that it should also serve as an important reminder that you can't trust bureaucrats to do what you think they ought to be doing, and you can't trust bureaucrats' political masters to do that, either.

This kind of dynamic is why I've supported less bureaucratic approaches to homeland security. Meanwhile, if I were a Democratic candidate for President, I'd be relieved -- and on the attack. As Mickey Kaus points out:

What was unusual about the July 4th holiday? No big terror alert. People went about their business. That's good news, but it's also good news specifically for Democrats, who can hold out some hope that the voters' focus will shift away from foreign affairs and terrorism. ... The government's effort to prevent more domestic attacks is one area where ambitious Democrats would seem to be wishing for success, not failure.

He's right. In fact, if I were a Democratic candidate for President, I'd be trumpeting Ridge's initiative as proof that the War on Terror is over, and that the United States is no longer in danger, and, as Kaus suggests, using it as an excuse to shift to other issues. And if I were, say, Karl Rove, I'd be furious at Ridge for providing this opening.

Are the Democratic Presidential candidates smarter than Tom Ridge? We'll find out, won't we?

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