No, not the old TV series with Diana Rigg in those delightfully tight leather pants. The Avengers are Humvees with two pods of four Stinger missiles mounted on each of them, intended as a short-range air defense package. There's a bunch of them around Washington now, the result of our terror alert status being raised -- again -- from yellow to orange. It's time -- again -- to ask what Tom Ridge and his Department of Homeland Security are doing to earn their keep. Unfortunately, the answer seems to be "not much."
When Mr. Ridge was first appointed "Director of Homeland Security" his position was symbolic. He was sent up to Capitol Hill as a cheerleader and lobbyist for the agencies that had authority and responsibility -- Transportation, Treasury, Justice and others. Establishment of the new cabinet post was supposed to change that, giving Ridge real authority to organize the defense of the continental U.S. It rearranged the bureaucratic chairs, but it really didn't do much else. Though Secretary Ridge commands a huge agency with enormous resources we are truly not much safer than we were on 9-10.
Almost a year ago, the Loose Canons Top Ten things to do about terror appeared. Since then, the feds have begun action on just three: arming those commercial pilots who want to be, slowing the flow of people coming here from the areas of concern, such as the Middle East, and hiring more Arab-speakers to translate the growing mountain of information the intel agencies are accumulating. A grade of three out of ten flunks in any school. In homeland security, it's perfectly ghastly.
The only discernible accomplishment of Mr. Ridge and his merry band is the color-coded alert system we now endure. This past week, we were treated to the usual: an increase in the alert status from "yellow" to "orange" on the basis of "chatter" among the various terror groups the NSA manages to listen to on occasion. The basis for this fourth rise to "orange" is not the same as the other three. Our intel guys heard an increase in chatter similar to the one heard before 9-11. But there are specifics. The warning of a pair of al-Qaeda truck bombers loose in London is quite real. American targets in the U.K. are included in their target list. Concrete barriers now deface London to a greater degree than in any time in recent memory.
We are getting used to living under "orange" alerts, which is part of the problem. The alerts serve only to place additional demands on Coast Guard, Customs, FBI and local police forces, and impose costs on local communities. But for the rest of us, they are meaningless. Should we stay home or go to work? Are we to avoid Washington, New York, or Cedar Rapids? From the Ridgies, there's no useful information. The color coded alerts are a political CYA exercise, nothing more.
We are a nation at peace during a most serious war. I wish Mr. Ridge every success. It's hard to conceive his department will provide my family and me any real protection. At the risk of agreeing with sad ol' Joe Lieberman who says this often, the best defense in the war on terror is a good offense. We dare not wait for them to come to us.
Iran and North Korea are in the first Axis of Evil sprint event, competing to be the first to turn nuclear terror loose in the world. Our intel guys apparently misread what the Iranians have been up to. They are succeeding beyond our wildest fears, and appear to have established their capability to produce fissile material. They may beat the North Koreans and be able to set up a production line for fission weapons much sooner than anyone here thought. Just when that might be ranges -- according to the jumble of reports this week -- out as far as early 2005 and in to just a few months from now. Whichever estimate is right, the time to act against the Iranian nuclear program is upon us.
We have made a serious mistake in "engaging" the mullahs in Tehran, seeking to reform them through diplomacy. In the past year, with our focus on Iraq, we have allowed the beginnings of conversation and compromise with the mullahs. The mullahs are incapable of reform, unresponsive to diplomacy. Like all Islamic fanatics, they cannot allow the possibility of diversion from their mission to destroy the West. Their anxiety is heightened by the time it takes to accumulate weapons, not by using them. Let there be no doubt: these people will use nuclear weapons if they can get them. Saddam's regime in Iraq was connected to terrorism. The Iranian theocracy is an embodiment of global terrorism. Every terrorist organization you can name from Hezbollah to al-Qaeda is operating in and from Iran, with the active support of the mullahs of Tehran. There is simply no circumstance in which we can tolerate Iranian possession or manufacture of nuclear weapons. They will enable these terrorists to use them as soon as they can.
What, then, to do? The president was right to cut off all diplomatic contact with the mullahs. We should maintain contact with the Iranian opposition, but we cannot rely on them.
First, we should mount the most aggressive covert operations possible against their three nuclear plants. I don't believe we have the capability to bring about the sabotage of these facilities, but if we do, we should. Covert action against the mullahs is also in order, but is not likely to succeed in time to thwart their nuclear program.
Second, we should prepare a limited military strike against the facilities themselves. It must be limited, because there is no need to tackle Iran as we did Iraq. We are not yet at the point where a strike must be made, but we will soon be. For now, we should demand that the nuclear production cease within 90 days, that the facilities for enriching uranium be dismantled, and that all be inspected by a multinational team immediately. Not the IAEA alone. Its complicity in the Saddam stall, and its ineffectiveness in inspecting these Iranian facilities is too clear. If the mullahs can be talked into stopping their program and allowing international verification, military action will not be necessary. It's wishful thinking, a faint hope, I know.
Faint because it is, again, no more than a hope for reform of the fanatic theocracy. It's a million to one shot that it would work, but it is worth trying, just once. If it fails, as it almost certainly will, then waiting will be gambling which comes first: the Iranian bomb or the Iranian revolution? It's a sucker bet. We have the capability to destroy these facilities, and we must not hesitate to use it if peaceful means fail. And they will. Once those facilities are destroyed, the Iranian opposition will be strengthened, and the mullahs will be weakened, perhaps fatally. Revolution, and freedom, can come in their own due time.