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September 10, 2003 A Letter to President Bush By  Tom Steinert-Threlkeld

Dear President Bush:

You probably don’t know Joel Phagoo. He is a 21-year-old college student who decided to go fishing in New York’s Jamaica Bay with his kid brother and a cousin. They ended up washing up just off Runway 4 Right at JFK International Airport, after the weather turned.

They wandered about the tarmac for an hour, then turned themselves in to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police.

These were innocents. But their ability to move freely beneath the underbellies of jumbo jets just goes to show: Two years after the worst terror attacks on United States soil, repeat events are all too easy to envision.

An evildoer can still load explosives into a 20″ rolling travel case and ride into a major train station in any large metropolis—and blow it up. Shoulder-mounted missile launchers can, without much trouble, take down airplanes from the visitor center at the south end of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport or, as Joel Phagoo discovered, Runway 4 Right at JFK. A kayak could do the trick at the Port of Oakland, right beneath Ray Boyle, the man in charge of securing the fourth most-active seaport in the United States.

We’re all thankful that there hasn’t been a repeat of the twin towers tragedy. But is it understating the case to say not enough has been done in the 730 days that have passed to make our people feel safe again?

Creating a permanent solution starts at home.

First, there must be economic security. Unless this country continues to prosper, there won’t be the wealth necessary to finance safety anywhere inside our borders. Or to pick up the tab of occupying foreign nations.

That means applying the greatest fortune of this country, its intellectual assets, to the task at hand. Just like presidents before you, create a clear objective and mission for the smartest minds we call our own. World War II put them to work solving the mystery of atomic fission. The Cold War put them to work transporting humans to the moon. This war on terror should put them to work on not one but two projects that our core competency—the creation, deployment and operation of information systems and advanced technology—can solve.

Energy: There has not been a serious attempt to wean this country from its dependence on petroleum-based fuels since the Carter administration. Just think what could have been accomplished by now, if we had kept up research, testing and development of natural, renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind and water power, and if we had made up our minds and stuck with it? Or if a willing citizenry had just been called on to conserve? We would reduce the stress on our deteriorating electricity grid. And, if we could just reduce our dependency on oil by 20%, we wouldn’t need Saudi Arabia. Then you could really prosecute a war on terror.

Physical Security: We’ve made it possible to ride in airplanes at 600 mph and still talk on the fly to someone speeding down a highway at 70 mph—and we curse if the call breaks apart. We’ve made it possible to know exactly when every can of soup moves out of a Wal-Mart SuperCenter, but we can’t tell when a college student like Joel Phagoo docks at one of our busiest airports. Now, we better figure out how to create invisible fences—permeable and impermeable—that guard against unauthorized humans, at our borders, airport grounds and other open, but vital spaces.

Apply technology intelligently. A good first step would be to challenge and properly fund our scientists and information technologists to devise the analytical systems that finally figure out how photovoltaics, fuel cells and the air itself can effectively free us from the addiction to oil that colors all our military and economic policies. A second step would be to challenge software and hardware developers to figure out what combination of low-cost antennae, sensors, transmitters, repeaters and other systems are needed to provide real security at all public and private places, without taking away privacy.

If running Iraq as a 51st state is worth $4 billion a month, just imagine what a similar investment could produce if it brings both true economic and physical security to this remarkable nation, and keeps our greatest resource, our brains, at work, on our shores.

Mr. President, this is what we are fighting for.