September 7, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Preparation or Prevention?

Americans are distressed that the government was ill-prepared to quickly assist disaster victims in New Orleans. But here's a fact that should trouble us more: The government could have averted this disaster in the first place.

The fourth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 seems an appropriate time to examine this distinction — to consider the requirements of two very different missions: preparing to handle a catastrophe when it occurs, and doing what is necessary to prevent a catastrophe before it happens. 

One might argue that while terrorists can be stopped no one can divert a hurricane. But it wasn't Katrina that caused most of the carnage in a city that may never again be known as “the Big Easy.” It was the flooding that took place after levees collapsed. 

More than forty years ago, it was decided to build levees around New Orleans capable of enduring a Category 3 hurricane. The chance of a stronger storm making a direct hit on the city was estimated at one in 200. 

How was it decided that those odds – roughly the same as being dealt a flush before the draw in a game of poker – were good enough to risk thousands of lives, billions of dollars in property damage and the existence of a unique and historic metropolis?

Politicians can make or break their reputations based on how they respond when calamities strike. In the aftermath of 9/11, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani projected strong leadership and, as a result, he is today regarded as a presidential contender. Last week, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour seemed fit for command; Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco did not.

But those who take the steps necessary to prevent disasters rarely reap rewards. If, years ago, some Louisiana politician had successfully made the case for reinforcing the levees so they could withstand much worse than Katrina delivered, there would have been no major tragedy last week. But hardly anyone would know the name of the individual who had ensured that a terrible sequence of events did not materialize.

Not only do policies aimed at prevention seldom bring applause. Frequently, they inspire opposition. For example, there was strong resistance, prior to 9/11, to any efforts to remove the “wall” segregating intelligence from law enforcement. The demolition of those barriers was finally accomplished through the Patriot Act – which remains a controversial piece of legislation.

While few opponents of the Patriot Act continue to defend the wall, they fervently object to letting law enforcement officials obtain information about anything researched in a public library – even by suspected terrorists. But if access to such information could cut the probability of  terrorists reaching their targets from say, one in 200 down to one in 400, might that influence your judgment about how highly to value this particular privacy protection? 

Where terrorism is concerned, prevention implies preemption. Terrorists must be identified and disabled where they recruit, train and plot. After the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that didn't occur. Six conspirators were arrested and convicted but there were no serious consequences for those who sent them on their mission, no serious consequences for any terrorist organization or terrorist-sponsoring regime.

Critics of the Bush administration make much of a memo written by White House terrorism advisor Richard A. Clarke to Condoleeza Rice on January 25, 2001. That memo does call for a high-level review of counterterrorism policy. But it equivocates – asking if Rice and other senior officials “agree that the al Qida [sic] network poses a first order threat to US interests in a number of regions, or is this analysis a ‘chicken little' over reaching and can we proceed without major new initiatives and by handling this issue in a more routine manner?”

The memo adds that if al-Qaeda is seen as a first-order threat, “Two elements of the existing strategy that have not been made to work effectively are a) going after al Qida's money and b) public information to counter al Qida propaganda.”

In other words, as late as 2001 senior intelligence officials believed that a robust approach to preventing terrorism was to send in more accountants and public relations professionals.

A couple of years later, perhaps having thought they learned a lesson, President Bush and his key advisors asked CIA Director George Tenet how likely it was that Saddam Hussein continued to possess Weapons of Mass Destruction. Tenet replied it was a “slam dunk.” But if he had estimated that the odds were a slender one in 200 that Saddam had WMD – and would provide them to terrorists — should that have persuaded the President that it was unnecessary to do anything more than deploy CPAs and speech writers? 

In light of the bad bet that was placed on New Orleans' levees, isn't that's worth pondering?

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

Read the Spanish translation.