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Remarks by Senator John Kerry - The Preparedness Gap

Location: Bronx, NY

I'm honored to be here with the many of you who are on the frontlines of America's defense against terrorism. 

The 343 firefighters, the 71 police, and the other first defenders who were lost on 9/11 are heroes for our time, and examples for all time. There is no way to add to what they did that day.  But in their name, and for the sake of our security, we can and must take every measure and summon every resolve this doesn't happen again.  And if another attack does come, that those in our firehouses, our precincts and our hospitals will have all the strength and tools they need to defend themselves, this city and our country. 

Nearly two years ago, President Bush came to New York and stood at Ground Zero and gave his commitment.  I wish the President would come back now and ask first defenders whether the commitment has been kept. We cannot afford to leave the frontlines of homeland security without the resources they need anymore than we can afford to leave our soldiers vulnerable to enemy attack in Iraq. 

And let me state it plainly: Just as we did not have a viable plan for Iraq after the capture of Baghdad, today we still do not have a real plan and enough resources for preparedness against a terrorist attack. 

Americans have a right to ask: Are we safer today than we were in the days after September 11th? Are our nation's firefighters and police officers better prepared to wage the war on terror?

Words, no matter how tough, are not enough.  A flight to an aircraft carrier, no matter how well staged, does not end a war.  Strong words must be matched by strong actions.

It is time for a President who will face the truth and tell the truth. And that truth is that the Bush Administration has stalled the 9/11 investigations instead of speeding it - forcing us to ask how can we prevent the next attack if we don't really know the facts about the last one?

The truth is the Bush Administration went to war without a plan to win the peace in Iraq - it gave Presidential sanction to misleading information and is still trying to conceal what happened.  And despite all its promises, this Administration has denied first defenders the equipment and support to defend America from danger. 

It is clear that a dangerous gap in credibility has developed between President Bush's tough rhetoric and timid policies which don't do nearly enough to protect Americans from danger.  It's time we were told the truth about America's safety.  It's time we had a President who will truly make this nation more secure.

The gap between America's national security needs and this Administration's deeds is widening day by day. 

In Iraq, we face a gap in burden-sharing.  This President went to war unilaterally and now our soldiers are there nearly alone with a target on their backs.    It is time to recognize that basic truth and change course-to share the post-war burden internationally-for the sake of our country, for our standing in the world, and most of all for the young Americans in uniform who should not be dying one by one and day after day. 

And with each passing day, Americans are learning that we also face an intelligence gap.   Americans should be able to trust that what the President tells them is true - especially when it comes to the life and death decisions of war and peace.  I know what it means when the American people lose faith in their government - what it means to our national spirit, what it means to our national security, what it means to our troops who are in harm's way. 

We need an independent commission with a mandate to investigate the truth about any intelligence mistakes, any political interference with our intelligence agencies, and a State of the Union message that trafficked in untruth at a time when at least some in the Administration knew it was wrong.  This is not a time for scapegoats - whether it is the CIA director or anyone else.  It is time for the truth. 

The real question on this issue and others is not just who is responsible, as important as that is; the real question is what went wrong and how we make America strong for the future.  That's why the work of the bipartisan 9/11 commission is so important. Yet, President Bush first resisted the pleas to appoint it and now that the it is at work, the commission's leaders - Republicans and Democrats alike are reporting that the President, John Ashrcroft, and other officials blocking their requests for essential information.  Each additional day of stonewalling is another day that all Americans are at increased risk.

Here, too, it's time to find the truth, face the truth, and tell the truth. 

Of all the shortcomings of this Administration when it comes to playing it straight on national security, none effects New Yorkers - and all Americans - more than the Preparedness Gap.  The Preparedness Gap is the huge difference between where America needs to be to combat terrorist attacks - and where we are now; the huge difference between what the Administration in Washington is telling America - and the reality which local firefighters, police officers, and frontline defenders are living with on the ground.

You know better than anyone else that national security is a seamless web - overseas and here at home.  And this is the bottom line: We shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad while closing them in Brooklyn. 

When it comes to protecting America from terrorism, this Administration is big on bluster and short on action. It is a long way from "Speak softly and carry a big stick" to a President who says "bring 'em on" and "dead or alive" - and then leaves frontline defenders without the numbers and equipment they need to wage the war against terror.

How dare anyone say "bring 'em on" in Iraq while leaving our first defenders without the resources to take them on in America.

We need an Administration less interested in double-talk and more truly committed to working double-time to guard Americans from danger.

A recent bipartisan panel led by former Republican Senator Warren Rudman has just reported how much more America needs to do to make up the Preparedness Gap.  In the words of the report, our firefighters, police officers, and paramedics are "drastically underfunded and dangerously unprepared." For example, nearly two years after September 11th, the average fire department only has enough radios to equip half the firefighters on a shift, and breathing apparatus for only one third. Only ten percent of fire departments in the United States have the personnel and equipment to respond to a building collapse.  Nearly two-thirds of firehouses are understaffed - and states and cities around the country are laying off more firefighters and police officers at a time when we need them more than ever.  And President Bush has not just looked the other way; he's threatened to veto the bills to help pay for urgent security needs in New York and across the nation. 

We now we have a Department of Homeland Security.   But it will take more than a bureaucracy in Washington to react if America is under strike.  If, God forbid, there is another terrorist attack, the phone won't ring first on Tom Ridge's desk.  It will be a 911 operator who answers the phone - and it will be police, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel who answer the call. 

We don't send soldiers to war without the equipment and weapons to keep them safe and win the battle.  And we shouldn't do any less for the men and women who wear a different uniform as foot soldiers of the war on terrorism here at home.  

We should not just ask how to respond but how to prevent.  And police are not just among the first responders, they are the first preventers.

We need to make certain they have the training and resources to protect their communities and their country.  They need fundamental training in who the terrorists are, where they come from, how they think and how police need to think to deal with them.  The police officers of America should go through exercises in how terrorists work.  This is how the Israelis do it and now we must too.  It requires technical assistance, knowledge, veterans and trainers.  It doesn't require many millions of dollars - it just requires dedication, imagination, and recognition of the paramount importance of state and local police in the protection of the country.

I also propose a new national initiative for frontline defenders the Father Judge Fund - to provide 100,000 new professional firefighters and the training and equipment that's so important to their readiness.   And I propose to restore the COPS program and put 100,000 new police on the streets instead of laying off the police we already have. 

I propose direct assistance to the frontlines - our local firefighters and other first defenders.  They shouldn't have to settle for the left-overs that filter down to them through layer upon layer of bureaucracy.  Money that's meant for New York's firefighters should go directly to the New York Fire Department - without having to take endless detours along the way. 

I propose a national alert system targeted where the threat really is instead of raising orange alarms all across the country every time there's a danger, no matter where it might be. 

And one of the first things I'll do as President is reverse George Bush's wrongheaded rule change that is going to take overtime pay out of the pockets of fire and police sergeants and paramedics.  That Bush decree - coming in the wake of 9/11 - is like cutting the pay of the troops while they're still in Iraq.  You and your brothers and sisters are putting your lives on the line and you're the last people who deserve a pay cut. 

As President, I'll also end the unfunded mandates of homeland security that are bankrupting our states and local governments - and leading to huge tax increases and major cut backs in education and health care across the country.  Homeland security is as much a national responsibility as national defense - and the nation should bear the burden and pay the bill. 

We need to provide police officers with protective gear so they can secure a site safely after a weapons of mass destruction attack.  We need to provide public health labs with the basic equipment and expertise they lack to respond to a chemical or biological attack.  We need new safeguards for our chemical and nuclear facilities.  And our ports - like the Port of New York - need new technology to screen the more than 95 percent of containers that enter this country without any inspection. 

But President Bush says we can't afford to fund homeland security.  I say we can't afford not to. 

You know, this President is very good at allocating all the money in the world when he wants to.  But I would remind him that the most basic responsibility of government is to provide for the common defense, not to provide tax breaks for billionaires.

The Bush Administration is tinkering while the clock on homeland security is ticking.  It's time to face the truth and change course. 

President Bush should face the truth that we cannot go it alone in Iraq- that international support to share the burden is as critical now as it should have been in the months leading up to the war. 

President Bush should tell the truth—and get out of the way and let us find the truth --  about the intelligence gap because nothing less is at stake than the credibility of our leaders, the trust of our people, and the future security of our country. 

And President Bush should face the truth and tell the truth about the Preparedness Gap.  So let him return to New York and explain to the police, firefighters and first defenders why it is that he hasn't kept his commitment and why you have been left out in the cold. 

Nearly two years after Pearl Harbor, as the battle raged from the Pacific to Italy, Franklin Roosevelt told an America at war that "because the Nation's needs are greater than ever before, our sacrifices too must be greater." This is the commitment the greatest generation gave to defeat the forces of fascism.  This is the truest patriotism. Now we need that same unbending determination to win the war on terror. I am certain the American people are ready to do their part.   They deserve leadership equal to their resolve - leadership that will put country and security first and close the Preparedness Gap.  So if I am President, I will go to the Oval Office every morning conscious of what you are doing everyday, often at great risk, to protect our neighborhoods and nation.  And I will never forget that my job is to help you do yours - so that together, we can make America safer, stronger and more secure.  Thank you.

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