Interviewer: Steve Roberts
Guest: Clark Kent Ervin, former Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and currently director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute.
Steve Roberts: For nearly two years, Clark Kent Ervin served as the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security. Now he's blowing the whistle! What he describes are profound failures in the Department to protect Americans. In a new book, "Open Target," he says "We lack of a sense of urgency about taking the additional necessary steps to make ourselves as secure as we can against the near certainty of another attempted attack." ... Clark, you go back to Texas with President Bush. You worked in his administration when he was governor, you've talked about him as a friend; the Bush administration has always prized loyalty in its employees; and here you write a book that's very critical of this administration. How did you come to that point, that you decided to break this code of secrecy and loyalty which dominate this administration?
Ervin: Well, Steve, it was actually a very easy decision for me to make. It was consistent, of course, with what I'd done as Inspector General when I was in office, of course, and I called attention to all these problems then. And so it seemed to me logical to follow up on what I did in office by writing a book in which I could go into still more detail, given the time I had, about what these vulnerabilities are. Further, I thought that I was doing my job in the administration. I still think that I'm doing the job that the American people would want someone to do out of government by making it clear just how vulnerable we remain all these years after 9/11.
Roberts: Of course the Inspector General as an office, as you point out and a lot of our listeners are not fully cognizant of what it is, but it's sort of an in-house ombudsman, in-house critic. So, in a sense, it's always an odd job -- particularly in an administration that prizes loyalty so much.
Ervin: That's right. The Inspector General is supposed to be independent and apolitical. Of course, he or she is appointed by the Administration. So going into the office, one has the same political position as the Administration, presumably. I certainly did... and do, generally. But you're supposed to leve your politics at the door once you assume office. If during the course of your investigations or audits or inspections you uncover things that are politically uncomfortable for the Administration, you're supposed to report that, notwithstanding. Some Inspectors General do that, some don't! I did do that!
Roberts: What kind of reaction have you gotten from your old friends? Of course, they're probably not surprised since you've been criticized since you left and you do CNN and other TV appearances. It's been uncomfortable for you? E
Ervin: The funny thing is, and I'm sure it's really just a question of circumstance, I really haven't run into any of the high level political friends I used to have in the White House and the Department of Homeland Security. So I really don't know what their take is. I assume there's displeasure. That would be logical. But I don't know that for a fact. The good news for me is that, among career people in the Department, I've received just scores of very, very supportive messages. Which suggests that there are people working in the trenches in the Department of Homeland Security who are really concerned about these issues, who are pleased that somebody is speaking out about them.
Roberts: I've noticed recently, Clark, that -- it's interesting you make this point -- professionals in many departments, whether in the Justice Department (to take one example), the professionals at the CIA (to take another), the generals in the Pentagon (to take a third example) -- that a lot of the people who've dedicated their professional lives to serving any administration and every administration are increasingly disgruntled with what they're seeing at the top of this Administration and increasingly bold bout speaking out. Most of them have retired, like you, and are speaking from outside as the generals for instance have. Have you noticed a pattern along these lines?
Ervin: Yes. There seems to be a gathering storm of it. You know, I've often said this and I really believe it strongly: whether you're a conservative or a liberal or Democrat or Republican I think we really have to focus on making government effective. Not whether government's bigger or smaller but whether it's effective. There's been such disfunction, such dismal performance -- I think it's fair to say -- over the course of the last five years or so that certainly Democrats and even Republicans who are honest have to concede that in certain areas -- most prominently, as far as I'm concerned, Homeland Security -- the Administration hasn't lived up to its promise. I'm very disappointed. And frankly very surprised.
Roberts: What about the people who say, hey! you're just a sore loser! You got appointed -- we'll talk about some of your tenure here but in the end you never were confirmed by the Senate. For this job you had a recess appointment. Then the President did not reappoint you. Hey! This is just sour grapes. How do you respond to people who say that about you?
Ervin: I think that argument would have some plausibility if I were saying something now that I wasn't saying when I was in office. But this is completely consistent with what I said then.
Roberts: Let's talk about some of the specific arguments you make in this book. At the core, of course, is the argument that America is still very vulnerable to attacks in the homeland. Give us your take: how vulnerable are we?
Ervin: We're very vulnerable indeed. Now, to be fair, we've taken some steps since 9/11. We've done a lot in some areas. Aviation, for example. But even where we've done the most -- spent something between 18 and 20 billion dollars on aviation -- it's still easier than it should be to penetrate our defenses. For example, just a couple of weeks ago, as you know, Congressional investigators reported that they were able to sneak bomb components through 21 airports in our country -- even though they went out of their way to attract the attention of screeners. With regard to the lack of sense of urgency that we have, just last week Secretary Chertoff announced that we're going to start checking the backgrounds, the names, of port workers against the terrorist watch lists! Well, that's a great idea, but why are we doing that only now?! Five years, almost, after 9/11! And 3-1/2 years after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and a year and a half into his tenure! On the one hand we haven't done very much and the reason for that is, we lack a sense of urgency about just how vulnerable we are.
Roberts: But that seems surprising in a way because this president has said repeatedly that his administration is defined by 9/11, that his core, sole, overwhelming mission has been to protect this country against another attack. That's how he would define his presidency! And yet you say there's a lack of urgency. Explain the difference.
Ervin: I think that's a very good question. I explain it this way. There was a very interesting hearing last week and one of the senators was arguing against giving more money to the Department of Homeland Security. He said, You know, if we're not careful, we're going to wind up spending more money on this -- Homeland Security -- than we are on the defense of the nation. And when it said that, it was as if a lightbulb went on over my head. I think that's the problem. At both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue people make a distinction between defending our interests abroad and defending us here at home, and the President says we need to kill and capture as many terrorists overseas as possible because otherwise we'll have to confront them here at home, he fails to recognize, I'm afraid, that America itself now is a battlefield in the war on terror and that as battlefields go this one -- the one here at home -- is the most vulnerable.
Roberts: One of the things that Administration supporters would say -- we had a discussion here yesterday.. about the CIA, the departure of Porter Goss, and General Hayden being nominated -- and one line of argument we've been hearing this week is that for all of the pre-9/11 missteps and mistakes the fact that there has not been a subsequent attack shows that something is working. You don't quite buy that argument.
Ervin: No, in fact I think it's a dangerous argument. It's a false and, as I say in the book, a dangerous syllogism. Just because we have a Department of Homeland Security does not mean that the homeland is secure! From everything that we know about Al Qaeda, they are working overtime to exploit our defenses. I think the reason why there hasn't been an attack in the last nearly five years is that they want the next attack -- indeed they've said this -- to be as spectacular as the last one. It takes time to plan that. You know, we Americans are very short term thinkers. At most we think in two- or four-year terms. For us, five years is an eternity! Al Qaeda, on the other hand, thinks in terms of millenia. So I think we have yet to see what terrorists have planned for us. The fact that we haven't been attacked does not mean we're out of danger.
Roberts: You also in this book... "Open Target"... One of the issues that you deal with here is a very sensitive one. That is what the effects of the Iraq war has been. This president -- your president, the one you came to Washington to work for -- has said repeatedly for years that this is the main front of the war on terrorism in Iraq and that it's necessary to fight in Iraq to keep America safe. That's been his argument. He used it in the campaign. It's one of the reasons he got reelected because Americans believed him. You don't buy that argument. You side with the critics who say in fact in many ways the war in Iraq has made America less safe. Explain your views.
Ervin: I think that's right. The little-lamented Porter Goss whom you mentioned I think put it very well last year in Congressional testimony when he said Iraq is not the cause of extemism but it's become a cause for extremism. Unfortunately, I think, and paradoxically, it's a sad irony of history that Iraq has been a recruiting ground for terrorism, just as Afghanistan was before the defeat of the Taliban. And not just in Iraq itself, but the fact that there's such international opposition even among our traditional friends and allies to how we went about going into the war has further created an international climate that makes terrorism more comfortable in the world. We have fewer friends. It's harder for us to enlist the international support that we need in what is necessarily a global war on terror. So I'm very hopeful that a conclusion -- a swift conclusion and an honorable conclusion -- can be brought to this conflict because unless and until that happens, we'll be in greater peril, it seems to me, at home, not less.
Roberts: A lot of Democratic critics of the President -- some Republicans but mainly Democratic critics -- have said that part of the problem of focusing so much attention and so many resources in Iraq is that it takes the eye off the real enemy which is Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden who remains at large despite the President's repeated vows to catch him dead or alive. That seems to be part of your argument as well. You don't buy the argument that the President makes that Iraq is the front line. In effect you're saying that there are other front lines that are getting less attention.
Ervin: And I'm saying the chief front line is America itself. As battlefields go, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the US is the one that's least defended. It's the easiest to attack and it's the one the terrorists are determined to attack.
Roberts: Do you expect an attack?
Ervin: I do. I think it's just a matter of time. There's no question about it. The only question in my mind is exactly how they'll do it. We have a smorgasbord of targets in this country and we've done very little to defend them, it seems to me.
Roberts: ...Let's talk about some of the specifics that you're most worried about. One issue that came up in the past few months is, of course, American ports -- with the Dubai ports deal and the flurry of concern about how could a foreign country have the power to run our ports. Of course, many ports have been run by foreign-owned companies for a long time! But it highlighted this question about how vulnerable the ports really are. Is this high on your list?
Ervin: It is at the very top of the list for me, Steve. As you know, there are about 26,000 containers that come into our ports every day. All the experts agree that the most like way for a terrorist to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction into this country is our seaports. And you also know that only about 6% of those containers are inspected. So we don't know anything about the other 94%. For all we know, a weapon of mass destruction has already been smuggled into this country.
Roberts: When you heard this whole debate, did you feel it was legitimate? That people were legitimately concerned about this company owned by the Emirate of Dubai having this control of the ports? Or did you think it was a smokescreen?
Ervin: I was one of the opponents on those very ground. As you say, most Americans didn't realize before this controversy that for a long time foreign companies have controlled our ports... But in this instance it was a foreign country -- and not just any foreign country -- but one with very recent ties to terrorism That country, UAE, was one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban before 9/11. Much of the financing for the attacks coursed through its notoriously porous financial system. Two of the highjackers were from there. The nuclear components of the AQ Kahn network were transhipped through the UAE. So for all these reasons... And furthermore, had the deal gone forward, key security activities, contrary to the arguments of the other side, would have been performed by a country with ties like this. So I was very concerned indeed and very happy that it was scuttled!
Roberts: Another area that's gotten a lot of attention lately has been border security, given all of the concerns about immigration, all the arguments made repeatedly by foes of a looser, more lenient immigration policy, is that this is an element of homeland security -- to secure the borders -- and not just a question of immigration but it's a security issue. That's made by the foes of looser immigration. Would you agree with that?
Ervin: Well I do. Most, if not all, of the argument about illegal immigration has been viewed through an economic prism. I'm less concerned about that, taking jobs away from Americans. I'm more concerned about the ability of terrorists to exploit our poorest border to sneak in among the throngs of illegal immigrants who come to this country every year. You know, Jim Loy, Deputy Secretary of the Homeland Security Department, was not known for acknowledging weaknesses and shortcomings. But in his final Congressional testimony, he worried aloud about just that possibility.
Roberts: And wasn't there, just recently -- within a couple of months -- a rather unsettling example of operatives from the General Accounting Office smuggling radioactive material through the border?
Ervin: That's exactly right. I was just about to mention that. I think less than a month ago Congressional investigators reported that they were able to smuggle enough radioactive material from Canada and from Mexico across our land border to make two dirty bombs. And they did so by presenting fake credentials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It was astounding to me that the Department of Homeland Security had not already figured out that it was possible to use these credentials and had not already familiarized itself with them so that they wouldn't have been taken for a ride in that way.
Roberts: Another area that Homeland Security has been chastised for within the last few months has been the reaction to Hurricane Katrina. You write in the book that you kind of agree with the critics that this shows that the Department is not as vigilant and not as efficient as it should be. Katrina has exposed some weaknesses.
Ervin: I think that's right. You know, I was very heartened by Secretary Chertoff's naming to succeed Secretary Ridge. One of the things that he did when he took office as to say, We can't do everything, we need to focus on the most likely threats and those that, if they were to materialize, would have the greatest consequence in terms of death and injury and economic damage. That's the right strategic construct. The problem is, it was presented perfectly in Katrina. Not just foreseeable but foreseen, a catastrophic impact if it were to happen, and yet we were manifestly unprepared for it. Had terrorists targeted the levees as opposed to Mother Nature, consequences would have been exactly the same. My fear is that if we're unprepared for something potentially catastrophic that we see coming, how prepared could we possibly be for a terrorist attack for which there's highly unlikely to be any warning.
Roberts: One of the themes that runs through your book -- you were, as I said earlier, you served earlier in this administration in the State Department under General Powell whom you clearly admired very much and then were detailed to Homeland Security when it was set up in part because you had done an effective job as the IG at State. And you really have a very dim view of the man you served at Homeland Security, the former Pennsylvania governor, Tom Ridge, who frankly does have a good reputation in this town, did as governor, did as Congressman before then. And yet you paint a picture of a man who, instead of responding of responding to criticism by saying, Gosh! Thanks for telling me! We're gonna make things better!, is much defensive and unwilling to listen to criticism. Talk about how, in such a critical job, the leader failed to deal with the problems.
Ervin: I write about that in the book, Steve, more in sorrow than in anger. As you say, I went into this as a big fan of then-Governor Ridge who had, as you say, and excellent reputation in Congress and before that. Moderate Republican Congressman, a terrific record of bipartisan support as governor of Pennsylvania, one of the states with a strong governorship role. I remember very well having a conversation with Secretary Powell about the prospect of my going to Homeland Security. One of the things he said was that I'd enjoy very much working with Tom Ridge. He was very much like Powell himself. But I found very quickly that there was a big difference between the two. I recall very well, in my swearing-in ceremony, Secretary Powell saying, I want you to tell me not what I want to hear but what I need to hear about what is working and what isn't working in the Department because it's my obligation to know that so I can fix what's wrong for the American people. I learned very, very quickly that Secretary Ridge, as I say in the book, was concerned more about the political consequences of what I said than about whether what I said was valid and if so what steps should be taken to solve the problems.
Roberts: But given his role, how do you explain that? It's so important to listen to criticisms. Everybody understood that, to some extent, you were dealing with a new enemy, that no one had all the answers, that you were learning as you went along. You have thought that would be the kind of environment where people would be particularly open to understanding different perspectives and understanding problems as they arose. As you think about it, what happened?
Ervin: I guess I'd offer two pieces of conjecture about that. I think one insight into it is an anecdote I recount in the book. At one point, in one of these two rather contentious meetings I had with Secretary Ridge, he said, "Are you MY Inspector General? You know, when I was in Pennsylvania, I had an Inspector General and he didn't issue critical reports and release them to the public." And I think that he just failed to understand that there's a big difference between Pennsylvania and Washington. Here in the federal government, as I said, inspectors general are supposed to call things as they see them. They don't work for the head of the department. They ultimately work for the American people. That's one thing. Secondly, I don't think he understood the politics of it. What I did for the Department, calling attention to these problems, could have been a good news political story for Secretary Ridge. If he'd seized upon that and attempted to solve the problem, he could have cast himself as a hero. By failing to acknowledge the problems' existence and making me the point of the story, he failed to take advantage of an institution that could have made him look better politically, frankly.
Roberts: Part of what happened to you was that you were nominated but your appontment was never approved by the Senate. You were given what's called a "recess appointment" and this is fairly common in Washington. This president has used it a number of times. You have the title of the job and serve till the end of the sitting Congress. You wound up not really making friends with the two key senators who are known in Washington as very bipartisan and very moderate figures, Senator Susan Collins from Maine and Republican Chair of the Homeland Security and Senator Lieberman from Connecticut, the Democrat. These are people who are not known as being difficult to work with in Washington. They work very well together. They're among the very few voices left who really value bipartisanship. What happened? If they would not process your nomination, there had to be a problem there.
Ervin: Well, I'm glad you asked about that because my not having been continued in the job is generally presented as a White House issue. But I ultimately had problems at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And as you say, for all the reasons you point out, I was surprised beyond belief that these two senators in particular would have held up my nomination. The ostensible reasons for their having done so -- the reason I was given by their staffs -- was that there was a matter that arose during my time as State Department Inspector General concerning misdoings in the Sinai Desert, the multinational force observers' unit -- it's a legacy of the Camp David peace accords. There are American personnel who basically keep the Egyptians and the Israelis apart. I very much wanted to investigate those allegations. I think my record at Homeland Security and at State, by the way, prove that I'm very aggressive indeed. I ultimately determined that I couldn't because I lacked jurisdiction to do it. But it was an irony to me that these two people, of all people in the Senate, would have objected to my nomination since I, like they, was trying very hard to improve Homeland Security's performance.
Roberts: So what's your explanation as you think about it? What happened?
Ervin: Well, in Senator Collins' case, I don't know, of course. But my only speculation is that there must be some relationship -- some tie -- between her and the person making these accusations. She seemed too personally invested in this matter for there to be any other plausible explanation, it seems to me. In Senator Lieberman's case -- at least in Senator Collins' case, she gave me the courtesy of a meeting, a brief one, ten minutes, to try to explain myself. When I started to answer her questions, she stormed out of the room, incidentally. But at least I had a meeting with her. I never had a meeting with Senator Lieberman even though Secretary Powell intervened for me. My thought there is that he was ultimately led astray by his staff. We see that in Washington, staffers having undue influence over their bosses. But I'm very, very disappointed by that, needless to say. If there were two members of the Senate I would have least suspected of this kind of treatment, it would be they.
Roberts: What about the White House which did nothing? Once you were blocked, did not reappoint you once the Congress reconvened.
Ervin: That's exactly right. By the 2004 rolled around, I'd issued so many critical reports about the Department and made such critical comments in Congressional testimony that by then I'd lost the few friends I had left in the White House. So Senators Collins and Lieberman continued to have their choke hold on me, and the White House refused to nominate me. So the upshot is that I ceased to be the Inspector General at the end of 2004.
Roberts: Clark Ervin, did you make any mistakes? I mean, you've recounted a situation in which you say, "I told the truth and that cost me my job." But did you contribute to the problem?
Ervin: I think that's a very good question. I've really wrestled with that. Perhaps I wasn't diplomatic enough. I certainly was aggressive -- there's no question about that. I tried on many, many occasions to try to convince Secretary Ridge and his team that what I was saying was important, and that steps should have been taken. But perhaps if I'd been a little bit more diplomatic, I could have persuaded them of what I was saying. So if I have one failing, perhaps it's that...
Roberts: Let me read you an email. This comes from a man at the Department of Homeland Security, presumably not a friend of yours! He headlines his email message, "He's no patriot." He's got at least ten questions or more than that, maybe thirteen questions for you but I can't read them all! I'll read a couple: When did you first discover that you would not be confirmed by the Senate? And when did you first discover that you would not be renominated by the White House?
Ervin: I guess I'd have trouble fixing the date. But I think it became pretty clear, say, two or three months into my term in '03 that Senator Collins was implacable. As for when it was clear to me that the White House wasn't going to renominate me, I think that probably became clear by the fall of 2004.
Roberts: Did you write -- and again, I'm just quoting from this email -- "did you default on campaign debts amassed during your unsuccessful bids for political office in Texas?"
Ervin: The answer is no, I didn't default on any debts. All the campaign obligations that I had from my Congressional race in 1992 were fully paid. It's interesting by the way -- if I may -- that this is a typical response from the Department of Homeland Security. Secretary Ridge himself issued a statement after my book was released last week and in that statement, interestingly, he did not dispute any of the statements I have in the book about Homeland Security vulnerabilities. In fact, he didn't address them. But rather he attacked me. And that's what I say in the book which accounts in part for why America remains an open target.
Roberts: And this email also says, "After receiving serious complaints of sexual harrassment, retaliation, and threats against lives and property emanating from US Department of State employees assigned to the multinational force observers, how were you, as Department of State Inspector General able to justify declining to investigate?"
Ervin: Because, as I said earlier, the multinational force observers' unit is an independent international organization. A State Department Inspector General has jurisdiction over simply State Department programs and operations. The MFO is wholly separate from the State Department. It's like a United Nations organization.
Roberts: I'll read one more: "Were your attacks on the Congress, the Bush administration, and Homeland Security honest criticisms or in actually a vendetta motivated and fueled by your sense that the Party had betrayed and abandoned you?"
Ervin: Well, no. As I say, one could make that argument. It's wrong, but one could make that argument if I were saying one thing now that was radically different from what I said at the time. But even when I had full-throated White House support, at the very beginning, right after my having been nominated by the White House for this job, I said essentially the same thing.
Roberts: Do you feel betrayed by this administration?
Ervin: Betrayed is a very strong word. I certainly don't feel supported by the Administration! There's no question about that. But I want to make it clear that even if I were fully supported by the Administration, I'd be saying the same thing. I think if there were one issue in our country... I think there should be many issues by the way... but if there were one issues that should rise above politics, I think it should be Homeland Security and so I think it's incumbent upon all of us to tell the truth about this issue, irrespective of what the political consequences are, or irrespective of our own personal fortunes.
Roberts: Are you now sorry you voted for George Bush for a second term?
Ervin: I'm not sorry about it. There are still many areas where I agree with the President. I still consider the President to be a friend. I'm disapponted about how things have turned out. Not about me, but about Homeland Security. Because as you say, this is an issue that the President has put at the very front of his agenda...
Roberts: ...and in the end he's responsible for these policies.
Ervin: There's no question about that. He's the President of the United States.
Roberts: What do you think he's done wrong?
Ervin: I think the President has failed to appoint people who are competent. Certainly that's true at Homeland Security. I think he's failed to hold people accountable for poor performance. And unless and until you have competent people in government, and unless and until you hold those people accountable for their performance, we'll necessarily continue to have ineffective government.
Roberts: With, for instance, the departure of Porter Goss from CIA, are you heartened that perhaps this administration is now realizing it has to be tougher on some of the less successful members of the administration?
Ervin: Yes. Well... I'm certainly heartened by Goss' departure. I think he was one of the least expert people in the national security realm. I'm not convinced though, by the way, that his departure and his replacement by General Hayden will necessarily lead to an improvement in the intelligence community. I think they're separate issues.
Roberts: ... We have a lot of emails for you, Clark! Let me read you this first one from a man named Stephen Buckley in Chatham MA: "I worked at the Department of Energy headquarters as an internal auditor. Basically our job was to find internal problems while they were still small. I found a problem in the area I was assigned to. The problem was so large that it was easier to get rid of me than deal with the problem. It really should not be surprising that people shoot the messenger of bad news, but is there no way to allow the uncomfortable truth to come to the surface?"
Ervin: Well... Two things I'd say. First of all, the institution of inspectors general is very important because we are legally obliged to bring these matters to the attention of the Congress and the press and the American people. Two, of course there are whistleblower protections for average employees who are not inspectors general which likewise empowers them to speak truth to power without any ill consequences as a result of their doing so.
Roberts: Mike, of Greenbelt, MD, writes: "You said that Al Qaeda wants to stage another spectacular on the US. For years we've been hearing how decentralized Al Qaeda is, with one cell not necessarily knowing what the others are doing. How does such an organization gather resources to plan an attack that would top 9/11?"
Ervin: I think that's a very good question. There is no question but that -- in part as result of the Administration's counterterror effort since 9/11 -- Al Qaeda is dispersed and atomized. To some degree that's a good thing. On the other hand, to some degree it's a bad thing because it's really metastasized the problem of terrorism. Now you have cells through out the world and including cells here in this country who are primed to attack it at some point. As to resources, the bad news is it doesn't take a lot of resources to kill a lot of people. Say three or four suicide bombers, for example, placed in exactly the right way at exactly the right time could kill tens of thousands of people in a New York subway. So it's very easy to launch a catastrophic terror attack. It doesn't take a lot of money.
Roberts: As, unfortunately, we've seen. No one -- no one could have imagined 19 people armed with box cutters, in effect, could have killed 3,000 people. It would have required a leap of imagination...
Ervin: Exactly. And using exactly that phrase, the 9/11 Commission put it very well when they said that even though there were -- we now know in retrospect -- some indications of such an attack before 9/11 in the summer leading up to it -- there was a failure of imagination as you just said on the part of the Administration since this kind of thing had never before happened in our country. We couldn't conceive of the possibility of its happening.
Roberts: Robert from Miami writes, "How much difference would the funds Bush has wasted on the war in Iraq have made to our security at home?" We talked about the diversion of attention. But there's also a big budget question here as well. Talk about that.
Ervin: I want to underscore, as you have throughout, Steve, that I'm a Republican still -- I'm a conservative Republican. I say that because my next statement hopefully will have greater credibility. I don't typically call for greater government spending. But I think it's telling that the Pentagon's budget is almost exactly ten times the budget of the Department of Homeland Security. $400 billion+ vs. $40 billion+. Homeland Security is expensive. Having nuclear radiation detection machines at our ports costs a lot of money! We need this money. So this is a time, it seems to me, to redirect some of our spending from where we're less threatened abroad to where we're more threatened and more vulnerable, namely here at home.
Roberts: How do you tie this in with the determination of this administration to continue to reduce taxes? You say you're a fiscally conservative Republican. And there are some -- not a lot but some! -- fiscally conservative Republican voices saying given these enormous financial obligations -- the war in Iraq, Homeland Security, the Katrina cleanup -- this is the wrong time to be extending tax cuts. What's your take on that?
Ervin: I believe in that. I'm really kind of an old-school Republican. Of course, that really was the core of Republicanism -- fiscal conservatism -- so I would not extend the tax cuts. I'm very loathe to raise taxes. An alternative to that, it seems to me, is not extending the tax cuts. That the Administration and its allies in Congress continue to do that suggests how unserious it is, frankly, about the dire fiscal circumstances that we're in right now. We can't do everything. We've got to make hard choices. If this is war, then wartime sacrifices are required. It seems to me that the sacrifice of tax cuts is a more than reasonable sacrifice to ask the American people to make.
Roberts: Given the President's laser-like focus on the war on terror, have you been surprised that he has not called for more sacrifice -- in your words -- from the American people?
Ervin: Well, I really haven't been surprised by that, frankly. Because there's this history now -- recent history in our country -- of presidents of both parties not calling on the American people for sacrifice. Now to be fair the circumstances that we've been in since 9/11 have been unique, and in a certain sense the war in Iraq has been unique. But I don't know that there's been a president calling for sacrifice since John Kennedy in 1960. We had a war. Later we had an expanded Vietnam war. In the Johnson administration, certainly, there was no call for sacrifice. It's not politically popular. That said, I think the wheels of politics are turning. I think in the 2006 elections and 2008 elections, for the first time you may see, god willing, a Democratic and Republican consensus in support of candidates who will tell the truth about the peril that we're in -- both security-wise and financially -- and who will call for sacrifice on the part of the American people. I'm no political prognosticator, but my bet is that there's a silent majority, to use that old Nixon phrase, in favor of that kind of thinking.
Roberts: Let's talk to some of our callers and get their views on this issue. First up is Dee, who's behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler, I gather. Thanks for calling!
Dee: Hi....I thank you for speaking up on this because I drive, of course, all over the country and deliver and pick up at so many different places -- ports, submarine bases, army bases. They never check in the back of my trailer. Never. They don't ask for a passport when I go into the port. And the biggest laugh that I've seen is our Homeland Security building whose loading dock is UNDER the building! And no one looks in the back of the trailer.
Ervin: I think what you're pointing out is what I point out in the book, that is to say, there are so many things that are common sense, so easy to do, that cost nothing or virtually nothing, and yet the Department hasn't taken these common sense steps. As I say, it indicates a lack of seriousness and a lack of urgency about the peril we remain in.
Dee: They're so worried about things coming from without -- it would be so easy from within. And that's already happened once. Why did we not learn!
Roberts: ...Let's talk to Lisa who's been waiting patiently in Martha's Vineyard -- at least you have a nice place to wait! Thanks for being with us...
Lisa: Thank you so much. This has been a such an important topic that you're discussing today. My question is, What ... is the greatest contributing factor right now bolstering our vulnerability, especially with respect to our current administrative policies with immigration?
Ervin: Well, I guess I'd say that the three fundamental problems are: lack of money, as I've mentioned before; two, a lack of expert, competent leadership at all levels in the Department of Homeland Security; and finally, a lack of a culture that is willing to acknowledge problems and roll up its sleeves, metaphorically, and solve the problems. Unless and until those three problems are solved, the homeland will continue to remain insecure.
Roberts: Let's turn to Barbara, in Belphre, OH. Barbara, welcome to the Diane Rehm show. Barbara: Thank you. We trade magazines and I just received the magazine, US News & World Report, from December 5, 2005. There was a huge article on a mafia-type terrorist who was thrown out of India and is now operating in Dubai. In this article they listed all the problems in Dubai. It says, "It serves as the region's criminal crossroads, a hub for smuggling, money laundering, underground banking..." and it just goes on and on! But what I'm getting at is that they knew back then all this information about Dubai. I'm shocked that they even considered a port deal with Dubai!
Ervin: I was shocked by it as well. You know, a lot of the proponents of the deal took opponents of the deal to be xenophobic, racist, and I think that criticism was terribly ill-founded. To me there's a distinction to be made between investments and even iconic American corporate institutions like McDonalds and Disney and Coca-Cola. I would have had no objections whatsoever to UAE or any other Arab governments owning institutions like that. But in the age of terror, having a country with ties to terrorism keep port security functions cannot be tolerated. And so, as you say, I was surprised by the deal and I'm very happy that it was scuttled. I hope that this will bring greater attention to port vulnerability. Indeed, it's had that salutary result today.
Roberts: But isn't it also true (and we're not going to do our whole show on the Dubai ports deal!) that Dubai has provided homeporting for American vessels? There's an airstrip there used by American fliers. And American military -- their safety and security is in the hands of Dubai every day. So it's not as if they're an outlaw state.
Ervin: They're not an outlaw state -- I want to underscore that. They are an ally in the war on terror. They've been supportive of the Administration -- there's no question about that. I don't necessarily take comfort from the fact that our military is comfortable with UAE. Given the record of the Department of Homeland Security, I frankly have questions about just how vigorous the security checks are that any government institution undertakes with regard to foreign countries.
Roberts: Let's turn to Barton in Chapel Hill, NC....
Barton: Thank you. I'd like to go back to the question of port security and who is allocated to inspect containers. It seems to me that there's something of an analogy made between the cost of inspecting these containers -- which is the reason Congress gives for not allocating more money -- and the cost of greater airport security, which might have prevented 9/ll. I'd appreciate Mr. Ervin commenting on what it would be appropriate to spend on port security, specifically to inspect containers, to prevent a more catastrophic sequal to 9/11.
Ervin: I don't have a precise dollar figure, but I can tell you this: right now, as we sit here this morning, at the port of Hong Kong, the world's busiest port, there's 100% inspection of cargo. If they can do it there, we can do it here. A number of port security experts have argued that a mere $20 charge for each container -- that charge would be absorbed by shipping companies -- would be enough to fund such a program. It seems to me that $20 is not too much to ask shipping companies to pay when, at the end of the day, it's providing greater security to the US as well as providing greater security for them and their product.
Roberts: ... You made an interesting point, Clark, that the controversy over the Dubai deal did focus attention on this. Do you see any progress on hardening some of the security around the ports?
Ervin: Well, just last week, for example, the House passed a bill providing $7.4 billion for port security, increasingly the amount of inspections -- that's a good thing -- and at the Senate Homeland Security Committee, my old nemesis approved a bill that would provide 100% inspections. It remains to be seen whether the full Senate will take that up, and, if so, how that's reconciled with the House version. But it's probably fair to say that neither of these steps would have been taken but for the Dubai Port World deal. So I do think that the upshot of this will be some measures toward increased port security. And any measure that increases port security is a good thing.
Roberts: Let's talk to Tex in Woolwine, VA....
Tex: ...For a decade prior to 9/11, the pilots and the pilots' unions have been screaming that someone's going to turn one of these airplanes into a guided missile. So tehre was no surprise that it finally happened. The surprise was that, when it happened, we'd been thoroughly warned by the pilots' union. And the airlines simply refused... to save money.. to secure cockpits. And once it did occur -- because the CEO's ignored what they'd been told by the pilots for decades -- not only did they not prosecute those CEO's, they turned around and gave them $5 billion outright and then another $10 billion in loans. And let them off from financial responsibility by making the taxpayers pay for the negligence of these CEO's. They did this to save a couple of thousand dollars a plane. This didn't require any imagination or any surprise to anybody. The pilots had been saying for decades that this was going to happen. And if they'd secured the cockpits there would have been no way for these terrorists to... 9/11. And they've gotten away with it...
Ervin: I largely agree with that... I think that's exactly right. And we have a present day circumstance where the cargo in passenger planes is not inspected, should be inspected, 100% of it should be, and yet the airline industry is opposed to it. If there's another attack, god forbid, by means of a bomb hidden in a cargo hold, then all of a sudden there will be support for this notion. The question is, why are we always reacting? Can't we get ahead of the curve, before the terror attack, and take common sense steps to protect ourselves? The hope is that the people who read this book will put pressure on our leaders to do just that.
Roberts: When you talk about common sense, I think an awful lot of people who go through airports think that an awful lot of what happens is not common sense. Pulling aside mothers with babies to inspect their carriages -- an awful lot of the effort, and awful lot of turmoil in the airports a lot of us think is not very cost effective.
Ervin: I agree with that. I guess I'd say two things: one, we need to be better at intelligence. We need to learn from our friends in Israel who are so good at spotting indications of terror and distinguishing between people who are likely to be threats and people who aren't. Two, on the other hand, we do need some randomness in our system, perhaps less randomness than there is, because Al Qaeda knows very well what the profile is and that we're on the lookout for that profile. They're working very hard to recruit people who don't fit the profile. So we need both, it seems to me.
Roberts: Final word here... If you still care a lot about these issues and if Michael Chertoff of Homeland Security were sitting across the desk instead of me, and he said, Okay, Clark, tell me three quick things I should be doing, what would you tell him?
Ervin: First of all, 100% inspections of cargo containers as they come into the ports, just as they're doing in the port of Hong Kong. Secondly, 100% inspection of air cargo on the cargo hold of passenger planes. And I guess third, I'd say getting handle on intelligence. And again it's very timely right now. The Department of Homeland Security is basically the red-headed stepchild of the intelligence community. It's on the outside looking in. And so the next time there's an indication of a terror attack, unfortunately the Department of Homeland Security will be the last agency to know about it. So it's very important with this new leadership change at CIA that there be some agreement between Secretary Chertoff and the new head of the CIA to make sure Homeland Security has access to the intelligence it needs.