Much remains to be done on U.S. security, analysts say

Progress is encouraging, they say, but many areas still vulnerable to terror

Despite progress in U.S., `still lots to be done' to guard against terror

July 01, 2002|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the months since the Sept. 11 attacks, new security measures have been put in place not only at airports, but also at border crossings, ports, and nuclear power and water supply plants. Emergency room staffs are rehearsing responses to bioterrorism. Immigration laws are being tightened. From Caribou, Maine, to San Diego, people are looking at their mail with a more suspicious eye.

There is no doubt, say specialists in various fields, that the nation is safer today than it was on Sept. 11 - safer today than it was yesterday, in fact, and not as safe as it will be tomorrow.

But the same analysts say that much more progress is needed to address not only the high-visibility threats, but also other critical vulnerabilities such as bridges, computer networks and oil refineries. They also say steps must be taken to identify - and make less accessible - the paths of least resistance to which terrorists, like burglars looking for the flimsiest lock, are drawn.

"Can we be completely secure? Of course not," says retired Gen. Charles G. Boyd, executive director of the 1998 Hart-Rudman National Security Commission, which foresaw the terrorist threat and whose report was the basis for President Bush's June 6 proposal for a new Department of Homeland Security. "Can we be far more secure than we are now? Absolutely - and without any serious restrictions on civil liberties and without breaking the bank."

Indeed, in a free society and global marketplace, security is often reined in by a number of competing forces: the interests of commerce and the economy, the strain of the budget, a commitment to personal freedoms and privacy, and the limits of technology. And time.

Last fall, Congress required that, by the end of this year, 3,000 CAT scan-like machines would screen 100 percent of checked luggage at the nation's airports, an enormous demand the government has recently been forced to scale back.

"It was like saying, `Let's have a man on Mars by the end of the year,'" says aviation security specialist Douglas Laird.

When the Justice Department announced new regulations requiring Muslim and Middle Eastern visa holders to register with the government and be fingerprinted, civil liberties and Arab-American groups were outraged, calling the proposal discriminatory. Even State Department officials objected to the program, due to begin in the fall, fearing diplomatic repercussions.

And business and industry has worried that the president's plan to move the U.S. Customs Service from the Treasury Department to the proposed Department of Homeland Security could place too much emphasis on security and hobble international trade.

For all the anti-terrorism efforts, including Bush's proposal to realign the federal government's security agencies, many security specialists say the nation's increased awareness has provided its citizens with the most protective coat of armor to date.

"The most important reason to feel better about how far we've come is that we had Sept. 11," says Ivo H. Daalder, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of a new book, Protecting the American Homeland. "We all now know what the threat is. We've seen it. We've felt it. It's made the country more vigilant and more aware and, therefore, much better prepared to prevent this from happening again. But in terms of a coherent strategy, there's still lots to be done."

With aviation the focus of the early response to the terrorist attacks, Daalder and fellow security analysts say, the government now needs to focus on other weak spots in the system: protecting large buildings from a biological attack via an air circulation system; regulating trucks that carry hazardous materials; conducting background checks on biological science technicians; and creating a nationwide data base, including immigration information, which could immediately tell a local police officer that the driver he or she just pulled over for speeding is a terror suspect.

At the top of many lists of the nation's vulnerabilities is the cargo carried by planes, trains, trucks and ships; it is subject to little scrutiny. In pressing his case last week for the Department of Homeland Security, Bush traveled to Port Elizabeth, N.J., where he surrounded himself with huge cargo containers as a symbol of this weak spot in the system.

Although port officials have invested at least $50 million in enhanced security measures since Sept. 11, the United States inspects only 2 percent of the 6 million cargo containers that enter the nation's 361 ports each year. Terrorists could sneak weapons of mass destruction or even themselves into the country via container ships.

"It is so simple to smuggle something bad into this country," Daalder says. "A single bad bomb in a container would have devastating economic consequences."

Boyd says, "Right now we have no idea what's coming into this country on container ships. It's a mess."

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