If President Bush's goal is to make the United States a safer country, he's got an odd way of doing it. In a desperate attempt to trim the budget and minimize a projected $100 billion deficit, the Bush administration has slashed by 93 percent a Department of Energy (DOE) request for $379 million to better secure America's storehouse of nuclear weapons and waste -- the No. 1 item on every terrorist's shopping list.
What makes this latest bit of budgetary bloodletting particularly confounding is that it strikes at the heart of the president's highest priority.
"Nothing," he proclaimed, "is more important than the national security of our country. Nothing is more important."
Well, apparently something is. Otherwise how to explain the White House's massive reduction of funds that Bush's own energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, called "a critical down payment to the safety and security of our nation and its people"? The money had been earmarked for such essential frontline items as fortifying protective barriers and fences at atomic storage sites, ramping up cyber-security on Energy Department computers and installing equipment to detect explosives being smuggled into nuclear facilities.
We know from the diagrams, computers and "Jihad for Dummies" manuals found in the bombed out caves of Tora Bora and Mazar-e-Sharif that the madmen of al-Qaida have their black hearts set on unleashing weapons of mass destruction on the people of America -- and would love nothing better than to turn our own nuclear materials against us.
The vast amounts of nuclear weapons and radioactive waste stored at Energy Department facilities are enough to make a terrorist's mouth water, but not enough, evidently, to stay the red pens of Mitch Daniels and the ruthless number crunchers in the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB), who clearly have a very different definition of homeland security than the rest of us.
The Bush administration has been shameless in its willingness to play the national security trump card to promote the things it most cherishes -- from tax cuts to drilling in ANWR to the drug war to subsidies for corporate fat cats. So it's more than a little ironic that when it comes to doing something that will actually protect us, the president is suddenly unwilling to put our money where his mouth is.
"I have submitted a budget that prioritizes homeland defense and our national security," he announced grandly. "A budget that puts ample amounts of money in place to respond should the enemy hit us again." Unless, of course, the enemy decides to hit us again by stealing enough weapons-grade plutonium to cook up a suitcase nuke.
Imagine the devastation if suicidal terrorists were able to break into a DOE facility, quickly construct a down-and-dirty homemade atomic bomb and set it off inside the lab, blasting tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere.
"These labs," OMB director Mitch Daniels told me in defending his decision, "are probably the most secure sites we have. This was one place where Gov. Ridge and others have established that we are in pretty good shape. There are other places where more catching up has to be done."
If the labs are in such good shape, why did the energy secretary, who after all has jurisdiction over the labs, not know about it? And if things are so peachy, how come, according to government documents unearthed by the Project on Government Oversight, federal agents posing as terrorists made it past security forces guarding nuclear labs more than half the time? Even though security officials were often notified that the mock attacks were coming, they still weren't able to keep the "terrorists" from claiming their deadly prize.
Such sieve-like security is eerily reminiscent of the woeful results airport screeners chalked up for years in similar tests, routinely failing to detect knives, guns and bombs before the horrors of September prompted Washington to finally get serious about airport security. Are we going to have to wait until we have a nuclear 9/11 before our leaders do all that they can to protect our nuclear sites?
It's not as if we're talking about an outrageous amount of money: $379 million to keep the ingredients of nuclear devastation out of the hands of mass murderers. That's only a few million more than the $250 million rebate the president's beloved rollback of the alternative minimum corporate tax would have given to Enron alone. And it pales beside the billions Bush wants for Star Wars.
"The administration," says Rep. Ed Markey, a longtime critic of the security at nuclear facilities, "has requested almost $8 billion for missile defense, which won't do anything to prevent suicidal terrorists from attacking nuclear facilities and blowing up dirty bombs or homemade nuclear weapons."
Since the mid-'90s, there have been more than 50 reports, commissions and congressional hearings highlighting the vulnerability of America's nuclear facilities.
It's well past time to stop the studying -- and start the spending. "We are storing vast amounts of materials that remain highly volatile and subject to unthinkable consequences if placed in the wrong hands," warned Spencer Abraham in goading the White House to loosen the purse strings. "Failure to support these urgent requirements is a risk that would be unwise."
To say the very, very least.