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Editor’s note: This is the first of three commentaries by Paul Sperry on Washington’s inabilty to protect its citizens.

WASHINGTON – In a fit of exasperation the other day, I blurted out to a U.S. senator: “Washington can’t protect us, can it?”

He looked down and slowly shook his head.

So it’s official: The federal government, like a Carnival Cruise liner, is too big, too slow and too self-absorbed to respond rapidly to even this epic, high-stakes crisis. It seems the feds are two steps behind the more nimble terrorists, always playing catch-up.

As lawmakers quibble over unionizing airport baggage inspectors, immigration inspectors are still operating under rules that existed Sept. 10. Visitors from countries that condone terrorism, such as Syria, continue to waltz through U.S. airports on visas to attend flight school.

Even a jumbo jet full of young, truculent-looking Iraqi men could enter the U.S. right now, with proper papers, to visit the Mall of America, and Immigration and Naturalization Service agents would be powerless to stop them.

It’s business as usual at our ports of entry.

As we send our boys to countries that harbor terrorists, countries that harbor terrorists send their boys over here – and our diversity-worshipping leaders are too timid to yank the welcome mat.

They’re also too craven to hold each other accountable for the high-level mistakes that helped pave the way for the Islamic terrorist attacks that cost some 5,000 lives and billions of dollars in property damage, stock losses and corporate bailouts, and tipped the economy into recession.

While President Bush wants dopey airport baggage checkers fired on the spot, he let the head of the agency that’s supposed to check dopey checkers – Federal Aviation Administration chief Jane Garvey – keep her job. She used to run perennial security joke Logan International Airport, site of half the recent hijackings. Her boss, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, also appears safe.

Even CIA Director George Tenet is keeping his job, despite being responsible for one of the worst intelligence breakdowns in U.S. history. It took Germany’s interior minister to have the guts to admit for Tenet, “We failed.”

All three officials are Clinton holdovers, which should make it easier for Bush to fire them. Instead, he’s hired a stateside security czar, and created a new layer of bureaucracy that makes it harder to hold officials accountable for future lapses.

Bush even let the FBI and INS off the hook last week when he named a Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force to help ID and deny suspected terrorists’ entry into the U.S.

Funny, I thought that was already a key part of their jobs.

Washington has no greater duty than to protect its citizens – to “provide for the common defense,” as the Constitution says.

Yet it failed us – famously – on Sept. 11. And remarkably, nearly two months later, no one in Washington has been held accountable.

And the government is still failing us.

As our new Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge teaches us how to open our mail safely, without aerosolizing anthrax spores, a woman in New York falls prey to spores that didn’t spring from a letter, ratcheting up the bioterror threat another notch.

Yet, still no suspects.

Pentagon counter-terrorism experts had a good chuckle over the “suspicious letter” advisory the administration sent to Americans. Some of the indicators it says to watch for – bulky, lopsided or uneven packages with lots of tape or string, oily stains and “strange odor” – apply to bombs, not anthrax.

“Call 911″ if you get a letter with “misspelled words” or messy handwriting, the advisory also warns, giving an engraved invitation to lonely widows and bored teen-agers to ring the cops, firefighters and paramedics – as if they weren’t busy enough chasing down real threats.

Bush has got to do something dramatic – and fast – to nail the Allah-praising anthrax terrorists, who have infected 17 Americans, killing four so far. Instead, he’s got boneheads giving us letter-opening lessons.

It seems all we’ve done since Sept. 11 is close barn doors. When are we going to get the jump on the terrorists?

The only thing that’s moving fast in Washington is politics.

We still haven’t caught up with the terrorists – bin Laden and the anthrax mailers are still at large – but politics has certainly caught up to our efforts to catch the terrorists, who have temporarily crippled our airports and postal service, evacuated our Congress and Supreme Court, stretched law enforcement and emergency crews dangerously thin and deprived all of us of sleep.

Democrats and Republicans, including the president, can’t agree on a desperately needed airport-security bill, because Republicans don’t want screeners federalized – and, therefore, unionized and more likely to vote Democratic.

They want them to remain employed by private contractors – even though the biggest, Argenbright Security, Inc., has failed to conduct criminal background checks on its guards, even under court order.

Many screeners employed by airport-security contractors are foreign nationals – not a few of whom are from Arab terrorist states, and therefore unauthorized by the FAA to work at the checkpoints.

But contractors still post them there – and the FAA lets them!

In short, there really is no regulation of the people who check terrorists for weapons before they board planes. And that’s why Republicans in this case should get off their anti-union kick, and agree to federalize airport checkpoint screeners.

Consider that the third power granted to Congress is “to regulate commerce among the states.” That includes transportation. Much of our commerce these days is conducted via air travel, but not lately. Why? People are still afraid to fly.

Congress can assuage fears and facilitate commerce by federalizing checkpoint and baggage screeners, thereby making security standards uniform across all major airports. The existing crazy quilt of separate standards at airports makes accountability next to impossible.

Yes, Congress in the past has abused the so-called “commerce clause” to justify things like the minimum wage. But regulating airport security to promote commerce is hardly outside the bounds of the framers’ original intent.

Congress shouldn’t stop there.

It should move the function of airport-security enforcement under the Justice Department where it belongs, and take it out from under the Transportation Department and the FAA, which is in bed with the airlines.

In the meantime, the president should move National Guardsmen to where they can do some good – guarding jetways and jets at night. They don’t really know what to look for at security checkpoints. Their presence there is just eyewash for worried passengers. Notice that many don’t even have magazines in their rifles.

No less than our civilization is at stake here, yet our elected leaders, like a bunch of Neros, are still fiddling around, playing petty political games. Where are the statesmen? Where are the heroes?

The safest place in America right now is Washington. After seeing its thorough incompetence in the attack run-up and aftermath, terrorists would be loath to destroy it and risk losing these bureaucratic bozos to real leaders who could actually win a war against them.

Postscript: Regarding federalizing screeners, do you know who hires the airport security contractors now? Not the airports, but the airlines, which have an inherent conflict: tighter security or fewer delays? They often pick the latter, and the FAA, in bed with the airlines, looks the other way. Few are canned, as it stands now, for security breaches.

Make the ultimate employer of these screeners the Justice Department (you could even create a new directorate — Airport Security — and put the air marshals under it, as well), which doesn’t have that conflict, so the focus can be on security. And hire ex-military/law enforcement personnel as screeners and
pay them GS-11/GS-12 grade.

That way, all screeners would report
to one employer who evaluates their performance against one standard – and has the resources and power to instantly investigate their citizenship and criminal record.

If continued private employment of
these screeners is the answer to safe air travel in the Era of Terror, why are we even having this debate? Hint: because the current way isn’t working. Time to
try something totally different, and not just tinker at the margins to satisfy partisan hobbyhorses.

By the way, Israel is not a good comparison as a nation that uses “private” security contractors effectively. It has how many airports to manage compared with the U.S.? Right – you get my point.


Postscript: Regarding federalizing screeners, do you know who hires the airport security contractors now? Not the airports, but the airlines, which have an inherent conflict: tighter security or fewer delays? They often pick the latter, and the FAA, in bed with the airlines, looks the other way. Few are canned, as it stands now, for security breaches.

Make the ultimate employer of these screeners the Justice Department (you could even create a new directorate – Airport Security – and put the air marshals under it, as well), which doesn’t have that conflict, so the focus can be on security. And hire ex-military/law enforcement personnel as screeners and pay them GS-11/GS-12 grade.

That way, all screeners would report to one employer who evaluates their performance against one standard – and has the resources and power to instantly investigate their citizenship and criminal record.

If continued private employment of these screeners is the answer to safe air travel in the Era of Terror, why are we even having this debate? Hint: because the current way isn’t working. Time to try something totally different, and not just tinker at the margins to satisfy partisan hobbyhorses.

By the way, Israel is not a good comparison as a Nation that uses “private” security contractors effectively. It has how many airports to manage compared with the U.S.? Right – you get my point.


Tomorrow: The compassionate war flops


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