Homeland security was much in the news last week, with announcements that al-Qaida is planning something big in the United States in the next few months. Such warnings cause us, at the very least, to pause and wonder about the true state of homeland security. The Bush administration says it is good and points to the fact that there have been no attacks on the United States since 9/11.

On the other hand, like much else about this administration, there seems often to be a serious disconnect between rhetoric and performance. While the White House boasts of its anti-terrorist prowess, budget-cutting seems to be the order of the day. To make up for at least some of the enormous tax cuts given to wealthy individuals and corporations, the administration is cutting budgets across the board -- and that includes homeland security. The euphemism du jour is "efficiency." Increasing efficiency is the reason the number of airport screeners has been cut by 9 percent from the 2003 level, even as air travel rapidly soars toward pre-9/11 levels.

The administration likes to compare current spending with pre-9/11 levels, but that surely is a misleading benchmark. The relevant question today is not how then compares with now, but whether what is spent today is adequate for today's challenges.

For instance, the Coast Guard's budget is up 51 percent from its pre-9/11 numbers. But there remain serious questions about the adequacy of that amount now. Asked about it, Coast Guard officials and spokespeople, loyal sailors that they are, insist that they have enough to execute their mission. But do they really? They are, after all, responsible for the security of 361 ports and 95,000 miles of navigable waterways, and the monitoring of some 20,000 oceangoing vessels and their cargo -- a tall order at any time.

To do that job, they want to put in place a new technology that would help keep track of the thousands of ships heading for American ports every day. Transponders on the ships would identify their cargoes en route and automatically advise the Coast Guard. This would give the Coast Guard time to intercept suspect vessels and prevent nuclear or biological weapons from reaching U.S. shores.

It is a state-of-the-art defensive weapon. But, so far, the Coast Guard can't afford it. Congress has allocated $40 million for the system, but according to The Associated Press, estimates range from $62 million to $120 million to install it in only a dozen of the nation's busiest ports. And there is another problem, described in a report in February by Associated Press reporter Randall Richard, concerning that system and a dispute between the Coast Guard and a company called MariTEL.

In 1998, despite strenuous Coast Guard protests, the Federal Communications Commission sold a radio frequency at auction to MariTEL. The Guard needs at least a portion of the frequency for the new system. Now you might think such a problem would be settled easily with a little good will and a touch of patriotism. But that's not the way the world works today.

MariTEL paid $6.8 million for the frequency and told the Coast Guard it might be able to get back that key slice of the frequency for $20 million. But the Coast Guard doesn't have the money, and Congress doesn't seem likely to provide it.

Dan Smith, MariTEL's president, was quoted as saying: "It has nothing to do with patriotism. We have over a thousand investors who have put $85 million in this company." He said he had a responsibility to protect shareholders' interests. MariTEL also offered to let the Coast Guard use the frequency if the company could collect a fee from every ship using it. But apparently that went nowhere, and the issue now is being reviewed by the FCC, which could conceivably revoke the sale; and the company is suing the Coast Guard for "telling everyone we're crooks."

In the meantime, knowledgeable people shiver at the thought of a big ship today, packed with modern explosives, detonating in, say, Boston Harbor. The result could be far worse than an airliner flying into a building.

We citizens can only hope that the folks in Washington, without further delay, can provide the money the Coast Guard needs to protect our vulnerable harbors and the major cities astride them -- and that there are no other cracks of this dimension in our civil defense.


Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail@cronkitecolumn.com.

(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite