More feds, not fewer

Like most of you, I'm still reeling over what happened Sept. 11. It doesn't seem as if anything will ever be the same.

What strikes me as interesting is a movement to federalize airport security. Suddenly, the public wants more feds, not fewer. It looks as if the private sector can't be trusted to adequately protect us. In retrospect, it all seems so obvious. Under the current arrangement, airlines are responsible for security. So they contract out the job and the lowest bidder gets it. And how do you suppose the lowest bidder is able to submit his low bid? By hiring minimum-wage employees! Is that who we want protecting us? Our representatives in Congress and security officials in the executive branch were quite content with the existing arrangement until Sept. 11. How could they have been so blind?

Our nation is pretty good at reacting to a crisis, but not that good at preventing one. We need to examine our unflinching reliance on the private sector. The Office of Management and Budget's Circular A-76 recognizes the fact that certain functions are "inherently governmental" and can't be performed by nongovernment employees. How come no one considered airport security as inherently governmental? Why does it take the deaths of thousands of Americans to make us realize that?

What frightens me is a report in The New York Times that a passenger flew from Los Angeles to Kennedy Airport in New York after Sept. 11 and intentionally carried a 5 1/2-inch-long pair of scissors through airport metal detectors to see whether she would be stopped before boarding. After the item went undetected, she notified airport personnel about the scissors. Another passenger reported that she successfully brought in a pocketknife with her carry-on luggage.

Equally unsettling are reports that the FBI was unprepared for what happened. Only now is the FBI—and, it is hoped, the CIA—beginning to recruit more Arabic-speaking employees who can help decipher intelligence reports gathered abroad. In 1998, the FBI said it was making counterterrorism a top priority and planned to move from "a reactive to a proactive posture." What went wrong? Well, one thing was insufficient resources. Just a year ago, then-FBI director Louis Freeh asked for $5 million for translation services, saying, "The FBI has not been able to translate all of the recorded audio conversations and documents it has obtained during investigations."

And why hasn't Congress given the FBI the resources it needs? More than 13,000 FBI computers are 4 to 8 years old, which means they can't run much of today's basic software. The FBI is asking its agents to make do with equipment less effective than what most of us have at home.

Let's hope that Sept. 11 has taught our congressional and political leaders that the country needs more feds. And we need to provide them with the resources to get their jobs done.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at miltzall@qis.net.

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