Israel’s Homeland Security: Lessons Learned, Lessons Shared

Over Labor Day weekend, I stared across the Israeli-Lebanese border at yellow Hezbollah flags and a large billboard with the horrifying image of a beheaded Israeli. A Hezbollah militant stood on the other side of the ugly electrified fence, snapping photos of me, senior officers of Israel’s Northern Command and others joining my visit to discuss advances in homeland security. Having a terrorist 20 yards away brings into vivid focus how close the threat really is.

During my trip, I had lengthy private meetings with top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau and Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh. Israel’s counterterrorism program of over half a century provides lessons for the United States as we work to secure our own homeland.

First is organization. Israel has one integrated national strategy for security, and those responsible for protecting the Israeli people have the authority they need to get the job done. The high level of organization makes Israel able to act swiftly in the event of an attack, and, in many cases, allows her to successfully preempt and disrupt terrorists before they attack.

America needs this level of organization to implement a homeland security strategy. Currently, responsibility for securing our homeland is scattered across more than 100 federal government agencies. This patchwork makes it difficult to connect the disparate clues that together identify terrorist threats, let alone to organize an effective and coordinated response.

In July, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed bipartisan legislation to create a Homeland Security Department, consolidating 22 agencies with jurisdiction over border and transportation security, intelligence and infrastructure protection, emergency preparedness and response and the use of science and technology.

The bill, which is now being debated in the Senate, provided those charged with the responsibility of protecting Americans from terrorism with the authority they need. The sooner legislation is passed, the sooner we will be organized to fight terrorism.

The second Israeli lesson is the value of intelligence. Knowing about terrorists and their plans is the best way to prevent an attack. The Israelis are able to infiltrate and recruit from their terrorist enemies, and as a result, they can act quickly and with precision to prevent attacks.

While the United States is working to improve counterterrorism intelligence, we have a long way to go. A report released in July by the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, of which I am ranking member, detailed gaps in our nation’s intelligence capabilities.

To infiltrate sophisticated terrorist cells capable of evading intelligence and listening devices, we need a massive investment in human spies. These human spies need language capabilities and the capability to successfully penetrate terrorist cells. At the same time, we must improve the flow of information so that intelligence is shared across the federal government and vertically with first responders.

The third Israeli lesson is about people. Technology alone cannot eliminate terrorism. Citizen awareness is essential. Californians know what to do in an earthquake; Israelis have that level of preparedness for terrorist attacks. Gas masks, bomb shelters and emergency supplies are found in nearly every home and business. While U.S. citizens may not need this level of preparedness, we all need to know what to do in the event of an attack.

The fourth Israeli lesson is that we must also address the root causes of terrorism. No matter how much Israel does to prevent, respond to and retaliate for acts of terrorism, new suicide bombers are recruited each week.

Nothing underscored this point more than a story told to me by Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who recently bought a challah at a store in the Jerusalem Market, the site of major terrorist attacks. While he was in the store, his security detail scanned the market for potential threats. He left the store only to see it explode behind him seconds later. One of the most highly skilled security details in the world had failed to detect the bomb or bomber.

Terrorism in the Middle East will only end when Palestinian youth see opportunity in the future. However difficult it is to shape that future, we must not be deterred in our efforts.

A year after the worst terrorist attack in history, Americans are learning to live with the threat of terrorism. Our nation is safer than it was on Sept. 11, 2001, but we still have a long way to go. While there are clear differences between the situation we face at home and the situation Israel endures, we have much to learn from our only democratic ally in the Middle East. From the tragedies both our nations have faced, we can build a stronger, more secure future for our families and neighbors.