Why wasn't public safety a Washington priority?

Because there's no industry spreading cash around the capital to protect American citizens.

By Arianna Huffington

Published September 20, 2001 6:37PM (EDT)

As we continue to dig, both literally and figuratively, through the rubble left by last Tuesday's terrorist attack, it is becoming shockingly clear just how much the powers-that-be knew about our country's vulnerability -- and how little they did to ensure our safety.

It's not like "Dead or Alive" poster boy Osama bin Laden has been shy about his murderous intentions. Less than three months ago, he released a recruitment video in which he vowed: "It's time to penetrate America and Israel and hit them where it hurts most." This video warning was enough to cause the Pentagon to place U.S. forces on heightened alert -- but apparently not enough to get our leaders to plug the massive holes in U.S. airport security.

"We all knew this was going to happen," says former Federal Aviation Administration special agent Steve Elson. "The Congress knew ... the whole government structure knew."

They also knew about the dangerously degraded state of our intelligence-gathering capabilities -- particularly our inability to successfully infiltrate terrorist organizations. What are we to make of FBI Director Robert Mueller's sudden "Help Wanted" ad, looking for people with a "professional level in Arabic and Farsi"? Did it really just dawn on the FBI's high command that having undercover operatives who speak the terrorists' language might prove helpful? Wouldn't it be a tip-off if the new guy in the jihad terror cell only spoke English?

Since our leaders clearly knew we were vulnerable, why didn't they react? Could it be because there was no gaggle of lobbyists patrolling the corridors of power offering cash incentives to Congress and the White House to protect the American people from fanatics and madmen?

If counterterrorism had been an industry doling out large contributions to politicians on both sides of the aisle and hiring powerful Washington lobbyists to plead its case, our political leaders would have leapt into action -- pushing through legislation to ensure our airports were secure and our intelligence operations actually collecting intelligence.

Tuesday's attacks not only exposed how vulnerable our airports are but how vulnerable our system of government is when policy priorities are determined not in response to the public interest but in response to the best-funded interest groups.

In the absence of such a flush lobbying group representing the public good, Congress began its 107th session this winter by tuning its fiddle for the burning of Rome with essential matters like the Bankruptcy Act, a juicy French kiss for the finance industry, which had coughed up $66 million in campaign cash in 2000.

With the benefit of hindsight, shouldn't the first order of business have been the safety and protection of American citizens? But there was no Safety and Protection of Americans Inc., spreading around millions of dollars on Capitol Hill to get our legislators' attention. So it took thousands of deaths before the package of vital intelligence reforms that Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., introduced this week made it to the head of the legislative line.

If the primary function of government is to protect its citizens, then what happened last Tuesday was clearly a massive failure of political leadership. A massive bipartisan failure. Nothing will be the same after Sept. 11, we are repeatedly told. But will that include transforming our cash-and-carry political reality?

Add that to your prayers this week, but first indications are not promising. Witness the gargantuan $17.5 billion bailout package being proposed for the airline industry. It seems the estimated $50 million a year the industry spends on lobbying -- and the $6.8 million it contributed to both parties last election cycle -- is paying big-time dividends.

In massive trouble long before Tuesday's devastation, the airlines didn't miss a beat in dispatching their lobbyists to take advantage of our national trauma. Not that this bailout, you understand, will prevent the huge layoffs already announced, including 30,000 by Boeing, 20,000 by American Airlines, 20,000 by United, 12,000 by Continental, and 11,000 by US Airways. Nor will it pay for the much needed strengthening of airport security, which, if the bill that Sens. John McCain and John Kerry are introducing this week passes, will become the responsibility of the federal government.

In the meantime, as we slide into recession, who's going to bail out those who will be most affected by it: the 34 million Americans living below the poverty line, the 11 million uninsured children, the millions soon to be pushed off the welfare rolls by time limits just as jobs are drying up?

As we examine the deep flaws in airport security and intelligence-gathering, why not also look at the fundamental flaws in a system of government that determines its priorities in a bazaar of influence peddling?

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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