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Chicago Tribune: Keeping America Safe Requires New Thinking

Apr 14, 2016

The following article appeared in the Chicago Tribune April 14, 2016. A link to the article can be found here.

In today's world, the threats we face are constantly changing, and the government's ability to keep America safe relies on its capacity to adapt quickly to these new and evolving threats.

In the years following 9/11, the U.S. made significant changes to our intelligence and law enforcement capabilities that have stopped more than 60 terror plots against the U.S. and saved countless American lives. But 9/11 was 15 years ago. The threats we face today are vastly different than the threats we faced then. And it's time we reprioritize resources to confront this new reality.

The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris confirmed that one of our largest security vulnerabilities is soft targets — relatively unprotected venues where large groups of people gather. Soft targets include places we all frequent, such as airports, transit systems, stadiums, restaurants and shopping malls. They are easy to attack and difficult to protect.

The recent attacks also showed that threats are becoming harder to detect. The ability to collect intelligence on terrorist intentions and terror plots is more challenging because of new encryption technology and the reliance on lone-wolf attacks. Because specific and credible threats are increasingly more difficult to uncover, we need to redouble our efforts and reprioritize our funding to reduce our vulnerabilities.

Yet, alarmingly, current funding for the federal programs designed to keep America safe fails to meet the new and growing threats we face.

The primary responsibility of the federal government under the Constitution is to "provide for the common defense." But in recent years, Congress has made significant cuts to the Department of Homeland Security programs that were designed to protect things like soft targets. Since Republicans took control of the House in 2010, Homeland Security grants to help states and local governments protect against and respond to terror attacks have been nearly cut in half. Urban Area Security Initiative grants, which large cities like Chicago use to invest in the training and equipment necessary to respond to their unique security threats, have been cut by over $200 million. Transit security funding, used by the CTA to invest in camera systems that protect against terror attacks and have lowered crime by 50 percent, has been reduced by over 60 percent. And Buffer Zone Protection Program grants, which once helped cities defend critical infrastructure like stadiums, are no longer funded.

To the detriment of our security, many of my House colleagues have championed the harmful, across-the-board spending cuts of sequestration that restrict our intelligence and law enforcement capabilities, and in 2014, forced a hiring freeze at the FBI. They champion these cuts even as the secretary of defense calls sequestration the "biggest strategic danger" to our national security and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs argues it poses a greater threat to national security than Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and Islamic State. Last year, the Republican House majority took the budget irresponsibility even further by threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security over a partisan fight over immigration.

All the while, Congress continues to prioritize billions in funding to respond to threats posed by a Cold War that ended decades ago. For example, we're spending $350 billion over the next decade on our outdated nuclear weapons policy. By simply eliminating our strategically obsolete stockpile of ICBMs, we would free up $2.6 billion a year — money that could be better spent on intelligence, cyber security and homeland security.

While the goal of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to deter, detect and prevent terror attacks remains the same, how we accomplish and fund that goal must continue to evolve to meet the new challenges. Protecting against new and evolving threats will not necessarily require additional spending, but it will require smarter spending. When it comes to national security, we must continue to ask ourselves what really keeps America safe in today's world.